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Gaurav Moghe asked: In order to prevent China from further augmenting its influence in the South and East China Seas, how feasible and effective is the idea of a US-Japan-India tripartite on issues of common strategic and economic concern?

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  • Titli Basu replies: The debate on the US-Japan-India trilateral framework has intensified as evident from repeated references to the trilateral framework in some of the recent joint statements including the Tokyo Declaration for India-Japan Special Strategic and Global Partnership (September 2014), the US-India Joint Statement – “Shared Effort; Progress for All” (January 2015), and the eighth India-Japan Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue (January 2015). In fact, the sixth round of the trilateral dialogue was held recently in December 2014. The dialogue focused on deepening “regional engagement” and deliberated on “ways to implement projects on the ground”, besides discussing the prospects of involving the foreign ministers in the process.

    Securing critical maritime space and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight have been a priority for the three countries. The January 2015 US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region (IOR), makes a specific reference to South China Sea in this regard. India’s role is considered crucial in securing the IOR which is critical to the US and Japanese interests. Moreover, India is increasingly being perceived as a potential net security provider in the region by the US, Japan and several other regional stakeholders. In 2007, the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee in its statement had referred to nurturing partnership with India for the security of the region.

    While convergence of values and interests led to the formation of the US-Japan-India trilateral in 2011, the effectiveness of this trilateral framework to “prevent China” should be weighed keeping in view the dynamics of the three countries’ individual relations with China, their respective economic stakes and domestic political constraints. All the three countries have deep rooted interests at stake vis-à-vis China. For example, despite escalating tensions over the contested islands, economic issues had compelled Japanese policymakers to persuade China for a Xi-Abe meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit held in Beijing in November 2014.

    Moreover, Indian foreign policy is embedded in the principle of strategic autonomy. This restrained India from responding enthusiastically to Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s Quadrilateral Initiative. India is likely to distance itself from any containment framework and engage with all stakeholders in the region including China, Japan and the US in pursuit of its national interests. Chinese regional ambitions are unlikely to be greatly influenced or altered by any bilateral or trilateral frameworks. The May 2015 White Paper on China’s Military Strategy stresses on open seas protection, active defence, and refers to “meddling in South China Sea affairs” by external players. Whether it is about defining the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea or the reclamation work in the South China Sea or creating new regional and global economic institutions, China is bolder than ever in pursuing the ‘Chinese Dream’ and seeking the centrality it once enjoyed in Asian geopolitics.

    Posted on June 16, 2015