The India-Japan-US Trilateral dialogue – A new chapter

The India-Japan-US Trilateral dialogue

The India-Japan-US Trilateral dialogue

The forthcoming India-Japan-US trilateral dialogue which was expected to be held at the end of this year in Delhi, may now be conducted in the month of January-February next year. It should be noted that the trilateral dialogue, being organised alternatively among three countries since 2011, had been postponed on June 24 this year due to scheduling issue with Japanese delegation. Fresh dates for the dialogue since then were not announced. There was a buzz in the diplomatic corridors that by the first week of December, fresh dates for the trilateral dialogue could be announced. But since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to dissolve his country’s parliament and hold fresh elections in December, “the three countries are coordinating between themselves for the rescheduling of the 4-year-old dialogue process,” sources said, adding that it could possibly be held earlier next year.

Upgrading the trilateral talks level

For the first time,  trilateral talks could be upgraded to the external affairs minister-level. A hint to this regard was made out first, through India-Japan joint statement and second, through India-US joint declaration – both issued during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Japan and US visit. “They (India and the US) underlined the importance of their trilateral dialogue with Japan and decided to explore holding this dialogue among their foreign ministers,” the India-US joint declaration issued on September 30 maintained this.

General perception is that if the dialogue is elevated to ministerial-level, it will add political purpose to the dialogue. That in the view of high-browed diplomatic officials is an “unavoidable” requirement given that China’s assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region is growing and both India and Japan face regular stand-off with Beijing on the territorial issue. To substantiate their argument they cite recent comments of Chinese President Xi Jinping in which he asked soldiers of People’s Liberation Army to be ready for a regional war. Then, they cite the case of Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Hong Lei’s October 27 statement in which he issued a veiled warning to India after it signed an agreement with Vietnam for exploration of additional oil blocks in the South China Sea.

Warding off China’s advances

“China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha island. Any lawful and justifiable oil exploration activity in the South China Sea is fine by us. But if such activity undermines sovereignty and interests of China we are firmly opposed to this,” Hong Lei remarked. During President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Vietnam in September, Beijing had struck a similar posture when Hanoi offered new wells to India. Although Delhi dismissed Chinese objections saying the ONGC is exploring in the South China Sea from 1988, but Beijing blinded by its uncompromising attitude doesn’t like countries like India and Japan tinker on its unchallenging claims over the South or the East China Sea.

However, with a platform like trilateral dialogue in tow, these countries fastened with common political moorings, will like their strategic phalanges to be strengthened in the Asia-Pacific region. Experts say platforms like trilateral dialogue benefit partner countries on two major fronts. First, it facilitates exchange of ideas on strategic matters and closer cooperation on defence and maritime issue; second, it helps in generating a sense of camaraderie among dialogue partners.

Given that India wants regional stability and sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific free from any militaristic adventurism, the architecture of trilateral dialogue has advantage of checkmating any overt aggression from rivals. But that doesn’t mean that Japan and the US would take Delhi’s side in the event of India-China military stand-off, nor it means India or the US would take Tokyo’s side during Japan-China stand-off. It will at best provide required moral support in the event of war.

More equations in place to support India

However, this is not a standalone trilateral dialogue between India-Japan-US, another trilateral dialogue involving Japan-Australia-US is already in place since 2002. Starting as official level trilateral dialogue between Japan, Australia and the US, it was elevated to ministerial level in 2005. According to sources, talks are on to turn the existing India-Japan-US trilateral dialogue into quadrilateral dialogue with inclusion of Australia into it. It should be noted that in 2007 following an initiative undertaken by Shinzo Abe during his first term as Japanese Prime Minister, a quadrilateral involving Japan, India, the US and Australia had been envisioned. Before it could take formal shape Australia under the then Prime Minister Kavin Rudd withdrew from the initiative after China issued demarche to all four countries. Now with Tony Abbott being at Australia’s helms of affairs, possibility of Canberra joining India, Japan and America to form a quadrilateral can’t be ruled out.

However, a different set of argument is also offered that Canberra which doesn’t have any territorial disputes with China may weigh options of joining any architecture which has chances of creating a rift with Beijing. To this, diplomats have a straight answer and that lies in the realm of on-going tussle between the two countries on the trade front. Australia like India is facing huge trade deficit with China. Considering these facts, “Australia may not give a miss to the offer of joining a planned quadrilateral architecture”, say officials from MEA. Nonetheless, for India, message is clear and that is, it will have to act fast to ensure its legitimate territorial, political, economic and security interests in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Japan & US extend cooperation to India

For this, interestingly, both Japan and America have hinted at supporting India’s infrastructure connectivity and economic development corridors for regional economic integration linking South, Southeast and Central Asia. India is building highways that will link it to Myanmar and Thailand. The project which is going to be completed in 2016 would be later taken up to the Central Asian region. With this free flow of commerce and energy from Southeast Asia and Central Asia to India would become a reality. However, this project predates the beginning of the trilateral dialogue between the three countries. Yet, as experts suggest the dialogue’s formation since 2011 has worked in the favour of Delhi’s strategic consideration and to give weight to it, there is every chance the forthcoming dialogue will get elevated to ministerial level and not the usual official level.

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