Analysts say the Japan-India air drills are mostly ‘symbolic’ but send an ‘important deterrence message to China and North Korea’. The drill is likely ‘an opportunity for both’ countries to evaluate the limitations and potential for military cooperation, say experts

Joint air combat drills between Japan and India are largely symbolic but carry a message of deterrence to China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, analysts say, as nations develop new military alliances that Beijing will have to game into its strategy for the region.

The maiden Veer Guardian exercises are being held at an airbase in Ibaraki prefecture, northeast of Tokyo until next Thursday, with four F-2 and four F-15 fighters taking part, Japan’s Defence Ministry said.

It is the first one-on-one training of its kind, the ministry added, although Japan and India have conducted joint maritime exercises since 2012 and army training since 2018.

“The more the status-quo militaries hold exercises, the safer the Indo-Pacific is,” said Masafumi Iida, a security studies fellow at the National Institute for Defence Studies in Japan.

The term Indo-Pacific, promoted by the US and adopted by its strategic partners, has been used to reflect the importance of India – along with Australia and Japan – in Washington’s strategy to deal with China’s assertiveness in the Pacific and tensions on the Taiwan Strait.

China considers Taiwan a breakaway region that should be reunited with the mainland and tensions have soared over recent months, with concern over the potential for conflict further stoked by China’s regular large scale military exercises near the island.

Veer Guardian “is the first step to higher levels of drills and exercises between both the air forces in the coming years”, Iida said, adding that it is “indispensable” for “status-quo countries” to jointly strengthen deterrence so as to keep the regional peace.

Concern among Indo-Pacific nations have intensified in recent months in part over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – reflecting the risk of unexpected conflict challenging peace – as well as the growing Chinese military presence across the Taiwan Strait.

Timothy Heath, a senior international defence researcher at US think tank Rand Corporation said the Japan-India air drills are primarily “symbolic” as the two militaries are not integrated.

“They use different equipment and procedures and cannot fight as a combined force,” Heath said.

But Heath said that the increased joint drills – which have at different times occurred with the US, Australia, South Korea, UK and Germany – send “an important deterrence message to China and North Korea”.

“The involvement of so many countries in military exercises complicates Chinese decision making and adds another deterring influence,” Heath said.

In recent months, the US has conducted joint drills with almost all of the major powers in the region, including with Japan in the Keen Sword drills in November and India in Uttarakhand, about 100km from the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border between India and China.

Last month, Washington held air drills with South Korea, marking the first visit by the F-22 stealth fighters to Seoul since May 2018.

From September to December, Britain held a series of exercises that saw the UK Armed Forces train alongside Australia, Japan, South Korea and other regional countries.

Australia also hosted the Pitch Black joint military exercise in August with 17 countries taking part, with the German Air Force taking part for the first time.

In August, the US conducted joint combat exercises with Indonesia in the Garuda Shield with over a dozen countries including Australia and Japan, making it the largest edition since Garuda Shield was established in 2009.

Veer Guardian is likely to reveal more about the gaps in the potential for military cooperation between the two nations than anything else, said Kei Koga, an associate public policy and global affairs professor at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

India’s air force is reliant on Russian equipment, while Japan is mainly based on American tech and hardware, so “bilateral interoperability” will be limited, he said.

Yet it remains an “opportunity for both to assess the possibility and limitations of operational cooperation”, Koga added. But there are risks in the new frenzy to make alliances.

They can “trigger an arms race and increase the risk of conflict, so communication becomes important”, Koga said, citing the increased risk of military exercises being misinterpreted or misunderstood.

It held a weeklong live-fire naval exercise with Russia in the East China Sea last month, sent fighter jets and bombers to Thailand for an exercise in August and conducted maritime exercises with Pakistan in July.

As potential flashpoints emerge across the Indo-Pacific, from Taiwan to North Korea, the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, Japan has moved away from its pacifist stance.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida signed a pact deepening security ties with US President Joe Biden last week, in a move Beijing says is provocative and likely to worsen relations.

Japan looks beyond US alliance for help to deter China military

Apart from conducting drills such as the Malabar naval exercises with the Quad countries – the US, Australia and India – Japan also took part in the La Perouse 21 multilateral naval exercise hosted by France in the Bay of Bengal.

Iida said Japan intends to increase defence cooperation with countries that have common strategic interest in maintaining the rules-based security order in the Indo-Pacific “to cope with the revisionist powers such as China and Russia”.

The ambitions and growing capabilities of China and Russia “are the root causes of the instability”, he said.