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Politics & Security

[All Politics is Global] The Vital Persian Gulf in Japan and India's Maritime Security Vision

As Middle East turmoil disrupts maritime commerce, Japan and India's security focus is expanding to the vital oil shipping routes through the Persian Gulf.

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An Iranian oil field in the Persian Gulf, July 2005. (Adapted from ©Reuters via Kyodo)

At a time when the Middle East is going through an unprecedented conflict situation, the strategic vulnerability of the Persian Gulf has been propelled considerably. Also known as the Arabian Gulf, this body of water in West Asia is an extension of the Indian Ocean. It is situated between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. The location of the Persian Gulf underlines its geostrategic significance and linkage to the western Indian Ocean's maritime security. Geographically, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) lies at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region, thus exhibiting itself as a regional pivot.

The Global Oil Market and Regional Security

The stability of the international oil market renders the Persian Gulf extremely vital for international security. Moreover, there is a lack of any regional security architecture or regional balance of power given deep-rooted frictions among regional states. This situation renders the region heavily dependent on external military presence. 

The escalating violence in the Middle East is shaking up the global oil markets. Japan and India's acute dependence on oil and gas imports from the region underscores the importance of its stability and security. Furthermore, peninsular India is adjacent to one of the most vital sea lanes. It stretches from the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Strait. Much of the oil from the Gulf region transits through this sea lane. 

Growing Independence on Middle East Oil

Further, Japan's current dependence on oil from the Middle East has reached an all-time high. In fact, 95% of Japan's oil is imported from the Middle East. This exceeds the previous figure of 77.5% during the 1973 oil crisis triggered by the Yom Kippur War, which broke out in October 1973. Besides, India's dependence on its maritime environment has been intensifying substantially too. More than 70% of its energy imports originate in West Asia, passing through the Indian Ocean. 

Japan and India are displaying renewed determination to fuse their strategic focus in the Persian Gulf region. The primary drivers for this are energy security, geostrategic location, and ensuring the safety of the sea lines of communication (SLoC) in the western Indian Ocean. In this reference, India and Japan have been known to deploy their naval ships for patrolling purposes in the past too. This is to ensure the security of international oil and cargo shipping passing through the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman.

Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. (©Houthi Military Media/Handout via REUTERS)

Impact on Japan and India

Politics of the 21st century centers around a world whose economic and politico-military weight has significantly shifted from the Euro-Atlantic region to the Indo-Pacific. Incidentally, for both Japan and India, getting their Indo-Pacific approach correctly rests, among other things, on ensuring they work out their Indian Ocean strategies fittingly. This includes power projection initiatives. It also involves establishing strategic equations with key regional players and stakeholders to ensure safety and security for shipping and international trade. 

Japan and India's security horizons are already being stretched. The East Asia Summit took India beyond the Indian Ocean to the Indo-Pacific. Similarly, the Quad brought Japan towards the Indian Ocean from the Pacific. In the framing of IOR's contemporary security paradigm, India's defense and security initiatives across the IOR have been accorded special attention. This is evident through its expanding joint military exercises (JMEs) framework — most importantly with Japan. The rising number of JMEs in the region reflects the evolving security priority of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Collectively, they are home to more than 75% of the world's maritime trade. Also, 50% of global oil consumption passes through their waters.

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Indian Air Force Su-30MKI fighters at the Air Self-Defense Force Hyakuri Air Base in Ibaraki Prefecture on January 10, 2023. (© Sankei by Ataru Haruna)

The Century of the Seas

Japan and India need to reach out to the key players in the Indian Ocean, as well as smaller countries in the littoral. They need to enhance cooperation on information exchanges, coastal surveillance, infrastructure building, and strengthening of capabilities. The aim is to ensure the security and stability of IOR littoral and island states. 

Connectivity initiatives, collective action, and cooperation will best advance peace and security in the IOR. This holds special relevance due to China's increasing visibility and consolidation in the Indian Ocean Region. It has become a key incentive for Tokyo and New Delhi to step up the pace and intensity of their respective defense diplomacy and maritime posture across this region.

Japan and India's national security imperatives and political interests have begun to stretch gradually beyond the Pacific and Indian Ocean Region respectively. It would only be fitting to state that the 21st century is proving to be the century of the seas.

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Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter).

Stay informed about the latest developments in contemporary Asian security, Great Power politics in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, with insights from Dr Monika Chansoria.

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Stay informed about the latest developments in contemporary Asian security, Great Power politics in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, with insights from Dr Monika Chansoria.

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