The Australia­­–India–Japan trilateral: converging interests… and converging perceptions?
17 Mar 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user Unsplash.

Back in 1967, the Australian National University held a conference on the theme, India, Japan, Australia: Partners in Asia? It was an interesting time to host such a gathering. That year witnessed a series of events with long-lasting consequences. In the throes of the Cultural Revolution, China was stoking tension with the Soviets, upping aid to North Vietnam, and flexing muscle with a hydrogen bomb test. The United States was ratcheting up military action in Indochina. The United Kingdom began closing bases East of Suez and the Soviets were preparing for their first naval foray into the Indian Ocean. Japan replaced Britain as Australia’s biggest trading partner, Suharto came to power in Jakarta, and ASEAN was founded in Bangkok.

Back in Canberra, the conference delegates agreed on the challenges their countries faced. ‘Most participants’, their host J. D. B. Miller observed, thought ‘the future in would be determined by how China behaved, and how others behaved towards China’. They were also concerned about Washington’s actions in the region and about how to secure lasting economic growth.

The delegates differed, however, in their worldviews, which shaped their perceptions of how to tackle those challenges. Among the nonaligned Indians, suspicion of the West and sympathy for socialism was clear, distancing them from the Australians and Japanese. Among the Japanese, pacifism loomed large, as did the promise of using its growing economic power to pacify the region. And among the Australians, wrestling with the legacy of Menzies, shifting views were evident, as the groundwork was laid for the major changes to foreign and defence policy in the early 1970s.

Those differences made it hard for the participants to come to any firm conclusions about how to deepen trilateral ties. Miller noted that the most likely foundation for greater cooperation between the three was a ‘sense of common danger’ emanating from the People’s Republic. But he also observed that they had different views of China—Australians saw a distant, if subversive, threat; Indians a ‘sinister force bent on humiliating India’, as Miller put it; and Japanese a misguided power, but one that patient engagement might change. Those varying perceptions, Miller thought, would make it hard to establish any kind of lasting cooperative approach to Beijing and the wider problems of Asia, absent a major shift in Chinese behaviour or an American withdrawal from the region. And so it proved.

Fifty years on, however, the notion of enhanced cooperation between Australia, India and Japan is back, driven once more by the challenges posed by China. It surfaced in the ill-fated Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in 2007–08, which elicited fury from Beijing. It returned again in June 2015 when foreign affairs and security officials from the three countries—including DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese, Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, and Japanese Vice-Minister Akitaka Saiki—held a trilateral meeting in New Delhi.

The agenda for that meeting was apparently dominated by maritime security, specifically freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, China’s island building activities, and the possibility of joint exercises. What was discussed at the next one, held in February 2016 in Tokyo, is less clear—in contrast to the earlier one, it passed almost unreported.

In 2017, it’s Australia’s turn to set the agenda and host the trilateral. Despite the times, this represents a significant opportunity. Key interests of Australia, India and Japan have converged, but—importantly—so too have perceptions of what’s at stake and what might be done. All three are concerned with three inter-linked challenges: managing China’s assertiveness across the region, dealing with the consequences of Donald Trump’s election and deepening regional economic integration. All have signed up—formally at least—to the idea that Beijing mustn’t be allowed to undermine the so-called “rules-based order”. And all are deeply concerned about Trump’s erratic pronouncements about the region and US allies, and committed—albeit in different ways—to pushing ahead with economic integration.

The third Australia–India–Japan trilateral meeting will present an opportunity to reinforce a coordinated message on maritime security, but also to widen the scope of cooperation to secure shared interests. The rules-based order should be upheld, but so should processes through which all get a say about how those rules are set. For that reason, the three need to collaborate to discourage a US–China “grand bargain” in the Indo–Pacific, which many in Beijing desire. They need to ensure the US remains engaged and to obviate the risk of missteps by an inexperienced administration. Moreover, they must work together to build the political, economic and military capacity of regional states to retain and exercise their autonomy, as well as defend their interests.