Rising sun for Japan- Sri Lanka maritime relations

Wednesday, 19 April 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

01By Admiral Dr. Jayanath Colombage

The Indian Ocean    

The Indian Ocean is the third largest water-body on planet earth. There are two billion people living in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This ocean has played a strategically significant role in the history. Its strategic significance has now become even more important in this ‘Asian Century’. The IOR connects the world through an extensive shipping network that links Asia, Oceania, Africa and the rest of the world. Hence, the developments in the IOR do not only affect the regional countries, but also the world at large. 

The IOR has gained importance as the world’s ‘Energy Highway’ and an area of emerging economic and military power rivalry. The economic interactions across this ocean have increased in the recent past and there is a new world economic order shaping upon its waters. The IOR has attracted attention of major naval powers of the world and this ocean has now become the most militarised ocean in the contemporary world. In about 2009, piracy in the Horn of Africa compelled major naval powers to come to this ocean to safeguard their merchant marine from this menace. Piracy, which threatened the maritime commerce in the Western Indian Ocean has declined over the years, but not been completely eradicated. Yet, international navies are still there. 

There is an unofficial ‘maritime cold war’ brewing up in the Indian Ocean. However, confrontations involving major maritime powers are unlikely at this juncture. Nonetheless, threats to freedom of maritime commerce can come from a variety of non-state actors. Violent extremist groups; human smugglers; illegal weapon and narcotic traders, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishermen as well as pirates are focusing their attention on IOR to carry out their illegal activities. Therefore, guaranteeing freedom of the high-seas and maritime security has become a critically important factor governing international maritime activities. 

03Potential flash points 

and choke points

Maritime security in the IOR has now become a dynamic and multifaceted concept due to the complex nature of players, their networks and motives. There are few unstable states within the IOR. These potential flash points pose a serious threat to the freedom of maritime commerce in this ocean. There are also several choke points at key entrances/exits to and from the Indian Ocean. The choke points at Bab-El-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz in the middle-east have the potential to seriously impact on the freedom of navigation. Further, as the connector to the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean is not totally immune from the developing security situation in the Western Pacific Ocean and the spillover effect of that is clearly seen here. 

Japan and the 

Indian Ocean    


Japan has become a major Asian naval power in the Indian Ocean and the presence of Japanese Maritime Self Defence Forces (MSDF) can be mainly attributed to the need to enhance security for the Japanese as well as international merchant shipping. 

When analysing the country of origin of foreign warships visiting the Port of Colombo from 2008 to 2017, it is observed that 65 Japanese MSDF ships have arrived in Sri Lankan ports, mainly the Port of Colombo. This is rather a high number and second only to Indian warships visiting Sri Lanka.  Although this figure is not a scientific derivative of the presence of warships in the Indian Ocean, it provides an indication as to who is there. 

A paradigm shift has taken place in the Japanese foreign policy in the recent past. In September 2015, Japan amended its constitution to allow its military forces to play a more effective role in maintaining world peace and a more robust role in the maritime domain to ensure the safety and freedom of maritime commerce. This change has paved the way for the Japanese MSDF to participate in number of overseas operations in the recent past. This is a move away from the mere protection of homeland role for MSDF. 

Japan has a greater dependency on the Indian Ocean for its energy supplies to maintain its economy and industrial capacity. Although Japan is dependent to a large extent on nuclear and alternative energy sources, the mainstream of energy requirement still comes across the Indian Ocean. Japanese foreign policy has a special focus on the long-term stable supplies of energy. Japan is the world’s third largest consumer of crude oil after the USA and China. Compared with other large consumers of crude oil, Japan possesses virtually no indigenous energy resources. Hence, Japan is dependent on the supply of more than 80% of its energy requirement from abroad and virtually all its crude oil requirement is from overseas, especially from the Middle East. This situation makes Japan as one of the most energy insecure states in the world today. As such, the increased Japanese MSDF activities in the Indian Ocean can be attributed to their heavy dependency on crude oil.


Japan’s strategic focus 

on the Indian Ocean      

Although Japan is a major economic power in the world, it did not pay much attention to the Indian Ocean till about year 2000. Reforms in Japanese national security policy since the Persian Gulf War since 1990 allowed the Japanese MSDF to participate in many overseas operations. Japans’ concern over the Western Pacific Ocean involving Chinese military activities and China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s increased presence in the Indian Ocean compelled the MSDF to venture in to and carry out operations in the Indian Ocean. Japan also found that India and the USA having similar interests in the IOR and established closer ties on the maritime domain with those countries. 

This trinity of maritime forces found convergence in their maritime strategies and over a period enhanced tri-lateral cooperation to a new level. Japan established close ties with India by concluding several security agreements and treaties including ‘Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation between Japan and India in 2008 and now participates in several multi-lateral and bi-lateral naval and coast-guard exercises involving India. These exercises include ‘Malabar’ and ‘JIMEX’.

Japan-Sri Lanka 

maritime cooperation    

Japan has been a major bilateral aid donor for development of Sri Lanka. Japan has now expanded its cooperation in maritime activities with the Sri Lankan Navy and the Coast Guard. Sri Lanka’s geo-strategic location, situated just 12 nautical miles north of the busiest East-West shipping lane in the Indian Ocean, has attracted Japanese attention, significantly expanding the economic cooperation to the military sphere as well. Japan considers the Port of Colombo as a convenient transit and rest and recuperation harbour for their counter piracy operations. This is the reason for the visit by a large number of MSDF ships to this port. Japan has now stationed a Defence Attaché in Colombo, who is coordinating visits of MSDF vessels and other military cooperation with Sri Lanka. 

When the Japanese Prime Minister visited Sri Lanka in 2014, recognising island’s enormous potential as a maritime nation in the Indian Ocean, the two leaders expressed their determination to elevate Japan-Sri Lanka relations, which have matured and diversified based on the long-standing friendship, into “a new partnership between maritime countries”; and further strengthen cooperative relations to play significant roles in the stability and prosperity of the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.   Prime Minister Abe expressed his gratitude to Sri Lanka for facilitating port calls by MSDF ships. The two leaders welcomed the cooperation between two coastguards in the fields of maritime law enforcement, Search and Rescue (SAR), disaster risk reduction and environment protection. Sri Lankan President expressed his appreciation for the dispatch of Japanese experts to assist Sri Lanka Coast Guard and expressed the hope for further assistance for capacity improvement through provision of patrol vessels. Prime Minister Abe reaffirmed the importance of capacity building on maritime safety in Sri Lanka, and stated that the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) would conduct a survey and will coordinate the projects. The joint statement noted the strategic geographical location of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean straddling Asia and Africa. Japan also expected Sri Lanka to enhance cooperation not only with limited number of countries but also with other countries as well.

Later, in 2015, when the Sri Lankan Prime Minister visited Japan, both leaders reaffirmed that strengthening partnership between the two countries can contribute to prosperity of the two countries as well as the Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region. The two leaders also reaffirmed the importance of the freedom of navigation and over flight of the high-seas. Prime Minister Abe assured that Japan would continue to extend its cooperation to contribute to capacity building on maritime safety of Sri Lanka in such fields as maritime law enforcement, Search and Rescue (SAR), mitigation of disaster risks and environment protection, including   examining the feasibility for providing patrol vessels. 

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe welcomed this initiative and both leaders recognised the importance of cooperation and exchanges between the two defence establishments on maritime security, including through port calls by vessels of MSDF.

In May 2016, the Sri Lankan President and the Japanese Prime Minister met in Japan and recognised the importance of port development and mutual cooperation for development of maritime capabilities of Sri Lanka.

In 2016, The Government of Japan granted 1,830 million Japanese Yen (approximately Rs. 2.4 billion) to the Government of Sri Lanka for implementation of the Maritime Safety Capability Improvement project. This project aims at contributing to the improvement of maritime safety capability of Sri Lanka Coast Guard (SLCG) by enabling SLCG to procure two petrol vessels to help safe navigation and freedom of merchant ships, counter-piracy operations, prevention of transnational crime and protection of marine environment and resources. 

This grant aid will be utilised for procurement of two 30-metre patrol vessels, including construction of vessels, sea transportation from Japan to Sri Lanka, and familiarisation training for coast guard personnel. These two vessels will certainly enhance organic capabilities of SLCG in discharging its duties. Until now the SLCG totally depends on seconded vessels provided by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), other than having a few small boats on their own. This project is coordinated by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). 

Beginning of 2017, the SLCG also placed an order for construction of two 85-metre Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) with the Colombo Dockyard Ltd. (CDL) to enhance its capabilities in deep sea surveillance. This project too will be undertaken by a loan provided by the Japanese government. These two OPVs will have the capability to launch and recovery of helicopters and small utility boats at sea. These two ships when completed, will be the biggest ships of the SLCG and will enhance its capability to a higher level. 

Building of these two OPVs by CDL is also a boost for the local ship building industry in Sri Lanka. The two ships will be based on a European design and SLCG and SLN marine and electrical engineers and ship building architects will be able to gain valuable practical experience by engaging in this project.  Further, SLN and SLCG will be able to utilise their experiences in countering maritime terrorism in the construction of these two ships. CDL is having more than 40 years of experience in ship building and has already built two OPVs, two Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM) and large number of Ultra-Fast Attack Craft (UFAC) for the Sri Lanka Navy and the Maldivian Coast Guard. If this project succeeds and it should, there is a possibility to construct the same model of ships for other international navies as well.

There had been many high-level visits by Japanese maritime delegations to Sri Lanka and SLCG has benefitted immensely from these visits and is receiving higher level of training and skills development on maritime disaster measures, particularly on oil spill combat skills, from the Japanese Coast Guard. Japanese marine environment protection and oil spill measure experts have been conducting regular courses and drills with the SLCG to enhance the latter’s level of competency in emergency response procedures in maritime pollution activities. Japan has also donated equipment along with skills training.

The Japanese Training Squadron has been visiting the Port of Colombo at regular intervals and engage in bilateral passage exercises with the SLN and SLCG. These exercises provide much needed international exposure to SLN and SLCG. The last such visit was in October 2016 by MSDF ships Kashima, Setoyuki and Asagiri. 

The MSDF also participated in ‘Pacific Partnership 2017’, a multilateral exercise with the participation of military and non-military personnel from the USA, Australia and Sri Lanka. This is the 12th year of this exercise and the first time it was conducted in Sri Lanka. The aim of this exercise was to enhance regional cooperation in the fields of medical readiness and preparedness for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) situations. 


Maritime relations between Japan MSDF and SLN and SLCG have moved to new heights in the recent past. Japan is focusing on their maritime interests in the Indian Ocean and is keen in protecting its energy supplies, especially crude oil and maintaining freedom of navigation for maritime commerce and over flight in the Indian Ocean. Japan has focused its strategic attention on the geo-strategic location of Sri Lanka and is keen to in partnering the island nation to ensure maritime security as well as maritime safety. 

The major beneficiaries of this renewed Japanese commitment and interest are the SLN and SLCG. Japan has pledged to build ships and craft for the SLCG to perform its role in maintaining a rule based maritime order in the Indian Ocean and to respond to possible disasters in the region. Japanese and Sri Lanka maritime cooperation is riding very high in the present context, mutually benefiting both nations.

(The writer is Director Centre for Indo-Lanka Initiatives, Pathfinder Foundation). 

[This is the Pathfinder Flash published by the Pathfinder Foundation (PF). Readers’ comments are welcome at www.pathfinderfoundation.lk. Previous PF material can be viewed at www.pathfinderfoundation.org.]