Trilateralism is on the rise across the Asia–Pacific as states seek safety in numbers, diversifying their relations in response to an increasingly uncertain regional security environment. On 8 June 2015, senior foreign affairs officials from Australia, Japan and India, including secretary-level representatives, gathered in New Delhi to explore how the three nations might work together to meet shared regional challenges; maritime security topped the agenda.
The three countries last cooperated on security matters alongside the US in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), which wrapped up in 2008 at the behest of Australia’s newly elected Rudd government due to concern about China’s reaction. That the three have now reconvened security-focused discussions (with potential spin-off naval activities) speaks not only to a shared understanding of China’s rise and the challenges of regional security, but also to their collective willingness to play a greater role in Asia–Pacific security matters.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi share a deep personal chemistry. Both are conservative, nationalist, pro-business leaders who came to power pledging to rejuvenate their flagging economies and restore national pride. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is cut from similar cloth, and has quickly built close relations with his Japanese and Indian counterparts.
Beyond personal qualities and close relationships at the head-of-state level, there’s a growing alignment of interests, values and concerns among Australia, Japan and India. All share an interest in preserving a peaceful and stable regional order and avoiding a Pax Sinica. All value democracy, freedom and the rule of law. And all are concerned by China’s military build-up, defiance of international law and norms, and increasingly assertive attempts to unilaterally force a shift in the regional status quo.
In a report released by ASPI today, I explore the extent to which the current strategic alignment between Australia, Japan and India offers a sound basis for deepening cooperation to reinforce the rules-based regional order. The paper concludes that an alignment of the political stars, a diplomatic consensus on China, tightening bilateral relations and coalescing strategic, defence and security interests mean that Australia should now lean forward to fortify our trilateral dialogue and cooperation with Japan and India. A coalition of like-minded Asia–Pacific maritime democracies would seek to balance against China, further complicate China’s strategic calculus and encourage Beijing to engage as a responsible stakeholder in the stable and open regional order.
Trilateral cooperation between Australia, Japan and India is intended to support America’s presence in the Asia–Pacific and demonstrate a public commitment to international law, global norms and the established regional order. A focus on diplomatic and military activities is an opportunity to enhance relations, show a commitment to regional security and strengthen the security foundation on top of which diplomatic relations can deepen. Joint exercises demonstrate presence, build interoperability, boost inter-force relations based on trust, confidence and knowledge, and shape perceptions of shared security concerns. The activities pursued by the trio would nurture habits of cooperation between their militaries and solidify both the diplomatic agenda and relations between their heads of state and defence and foreign ministers, so uniting the three nations.
While the strategic convergence between the three is based on a range of complementary factors, our nations are very different beasts, and a range of obstacles will naturally trouble trilateral cooperation. Australia is America’s staunch Anglosphere ally in the Pacific. Japan is a former client state of the US and has an entrenched post-war tradition of pacifism. And India zealously protects its ability to make its foreign policy independently. The interests of the three partners may be broadly aligned, but they’ll rarely, if ever, be homogeneous. The three have different order-building traditions and different strategic visions for the Asia–Pacific; the benefits and risks for Japan and India will be very different from those for Australia. It’s essential that these points of difference are kept in mind as a realistic trilateral agenda is reconciled and realised over the coming years. The success of the trilateral will turn on the trio’s ability to understand the extent to which our interests overlap.
The parley between Australia, Japan and India that kicked off in New Delhi last month is an understandable and appropriate response to the vexed security situation that the three countries face in the Asia–Pacific. The move reflects the region-wide tendency towards tightening bilateral and trilateral security-focused relations, implying that a return to quadrilateral or similar minilateral groupings will be likely to supplement the regional security architecture in the future. Indeed, intensive trilateral engagement between Australia, Japan and India would provide a sound foundation for a return to a collective security mechanism, like the QSD, down the line.