The India-US-Japan trilateral meeting was convened on December 20, 2014 after a long hiatus. While this official-level engagement did not make media headlines, the re-initiation of this forum is a significant response to the changing security dynamic in Asia.
Asia today stands at a crossroads. It is increasingly becoming the locus of economic power but is also witnessing major geopolitical realignments, growing strategic competition and destabilising unilateral assertions based on unsettled historical differences.
The absence of regional security architecture to mediate these complex trends is Asia’s single-most pressing concern. There are several constraints that impede progress. To begin with, there is a clash of normative systems among states. Power elites in a few select countries foster a false dichotomy between universal and Asian values. The desire for hegemonic dominance suppresses the region’s inherent multipolarity. And there are divergent notions of geographically limited regionalism versus balanced and inclusive architecture.
Europe’s experience of building economic and security structures during the intense polarisation of the Cold War hardly fits in today’s Asia.
In spite of the region’s multiple contradictions, there has been some expectation since 2005 that the East Asia Summit (EAS) process anchored by Asean will eventually evolve into a leaders-led regional security forum, not least because it encompasses all relevant and consequential actors within its ambit. However, hopes are fast receding for “Asean centrality”-based architecture even as regional disequilibrium accelerates. Existing Asean-led forums remain uncoordinated and limited to non-traditional security issues. Talk of “multiple overlapping” institutions, equating partial with inclusive frameworks, only serves to marginalise the EAS further.
In the absence of a regional organisation to address security issues, traditional rivalries and realignments dot the East Asian landscape. Russia and China have converged to forge an energy partnership and have deepened defence ties. South Korea, nominally an ally of the US, is now economically aligned with China and has made common cause with Beijing against Japan in Northeast Asia. China’s economic leverage has effectively neutralised Asean. This trend has significantly enlarged the strategic space for China, whose grey zone actions and territorial assertions have triggered “hedging” impulses among regional powers in the first place.
Meanwhile, the US appears unlikely to accommodate China’s shortcut to great power status by conceding the latter’s dominance in the western Pacific, but anxieties about US resolve will persist, with or without a sustained US commitment to its “rebalance” strategy. At the same time, US-sponsored economic arrangements (TPP) can adversely impact Asean-led attempts at economic integration (RCEP). The US is being perceived as falling short of innovative ideas and credible contributions to redress the Asian power imbalance.
It is in this context that we need to view the importance of PM Narendra Modi’s Act East Policy, the resounding victory of PM Shinzo Abe in snap elections in Japan and the forthcoming visit of President Barack Obama. India’s choice of Mr Abe and Mr Obama as chief guests for consecutive Republic Days sends out a message that will resonate across Asia.
Mr Abe’s renewed mandate promises to alter the political landscape not only in Japan but also in “broader Asia”. He has pledged to restore Japan’s economic vitality, amend its pacifist constitution and make “proactive contributions” to regional peace and stability. Even relatively limited legislative changes lifting restrictions in the domain of collective self defence will have a significant impact on power equations in Asia, as will Mr Abe’s continued engagement of Southeast Asian countries and his strong advocacy of Indo-Pacific strategies.
There are striking similarities between Mr Abe’s approach and the attention devoted by his Indian counterpart Mr Modi to strengthening transformative partnerships with like-minded countries in the Asia Pacific.
In the course of recent summit meetings, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signalled his intention to revive India’s historical role across the Asia Pacific, from forging new strategic ties to scaled-up contributions to the regional power equilibrium. In his own words, since he assumed office “no region has seen more intense engagement on India’s part than the Asia Pacific — because we understand how deeply our future is linked to this region”. He has urged regional powers to buttress economic integration and growing prosperity with strong regional institutions that underpin peace and stability by ensuring universal respect for international law and global norms.
President Obama’s unprecedented second state visit to India next month provides another opportunity to revive the strategic drivers of India-US relations. Operationalising civil nuclear cooperation as well as the defence technology and trade initiative is an important priority for both countries. India and the US need to remove irritants to their growing economic relations and renew their defence cooperation framework with a more comprehensive ten-year agreement covering maritime security across the Indo-Pacific, defence exchanges and defence industrial ties.
Against this backdrop, the India-US-Japan dialogue held last week delivered substantive outcomes, from initiatives for regional economic connectivity to advancing shared security interests. With greater momentum behind both India-Japan and India-US components, comfort levels have grown. Trilateral interactions are to be intensified in the margins of regional meetings. This engagement must now be sustained and, eventually, raised to the ministerial level.
While there are nodes of convergence in the strategic outlooks of India, Japan and the US, all three countries will face considerable endogenous challenges: defence cooperation for Japan, fragmented attention and diminishing capacity for the US and hesitation about special partnerships for India. It is, therefore, important for the three to invest as much in each other’s economic growth and prosperity as in meeting security challenges. If the leading democratic powers in the Asia Pacific can step up their economic reinforcement and synchronise their defence and security ties, this would constitute a major stepping stone for bringing about a favourable balance of power in the region. That in turn can uplift Asean’s flagging self-confidence and create the basis for a balanced multipolar security architecture for Asia.