Photo/IllutrationA helicopter belonging to the Japan Coast Guard approaches a patrol vessel of the Indian Coast Guard in the foreground. (Takeshi Narabe)

CHENNAI, India--With an eye toward fighting piracy, the coast guards of Sri Lanka and Maldives for the first time participated as observers during a joint training session involving the coast guards of Japan and India on Jan. 17.

The involvement of Sri Lanka and Maldives, which both face the Indian Ocean, a vital sea lane for Japan and other Asian nations, demonstrates the priority on maintaining a safe passageway among coastal nations.

"The Indian Ocean is extremely important because many Japanese ships pass through it," said Japan Coast Guard Commandant Satoshi Nakajima. "Improved cooperation among the various nations will lead to saving the lives of Japanese citizens."

China has contributed to the construction of harbors in Sri Lanka and Maldives. In addition, Chinese submarines and ships have also anchored at ports in those two nations.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration is seeking to deepen cooperation with various nations under its strategy for a "free and open Indo-Pacific region" as one way to counter maritime advances being made by China.

Joint training sessions involving the Japan Coast Guard and Indian Coast Guard started in 2000 after a pirate attack the previous year on a ship carrying Japanese citizens.

The 16th and latest session was focused on dealing with pirates.

The Japan Coast Guard's Tsugaru cutter was joined by the Indian Coast Guard's Charlie patrol vessel as part of the 11 vessels that were involved in the training exercise.

Among the exercises undertaken was suppressing pirates who had hijacked a cruise ship as well as using helicopters to rescue individuals floating out at sea.