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A trilateral foundation for Indo-Pacific security

by Walter Ladwig

Special To The Japan Times

The first ever India-Japan-U.S. trilateral dialogue on Dec. 18 on security issues in the Indo-Pacific region could be the start of a transformation in strategic relations among the major democracies of Asia that has a lasting impact on the peace and prosperity of the region. However, translating mere dialogue into meaningful action will require the identification of concrete steps the three nations can take to deepen their security ties and advance their shared vision for the future of the region.

The India-Japan-U.S. strategic triangle is based on a set of strengthening bilateral relationships. The U.S. and Japan are treaty allies who share key regional security objectives and engage in close defense cooperation, including the transfer of advanced weapons systems. India and Japan established a strategic partnership in 2006 that has been buttressed by joint naval exercises and regular bilateral security dialogues between service chiefs and the countries’ prime ministers.

With more than 60 joint military exercises undertaken in the past decade, Indo-U.S. ties are underpinned by a ten-year defense pact that advanced intelligence sharing, military technology transfers, and arms sales. The three nations have a broad range of common interests and concerns in diverse areas such as maritime security, nuclear nonproliferation and the future security architecture of the Indo-Pacific region.

Cooperation on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region is one obvious area of focus. Both India and Japan are highly dependent on energy flows transiting the Indian Ocean, accounting for 60 percent and 90 percent of their oil imports respectively. Moreover, while the United States remains the world’s leading naval power, the Japanese and Indian navies are among the top five in the world. Having undertaken trilateral naval exercises in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific periodically since 2007, India, Japan and the U.S. should carry out such maneuvers on a regular and more frequent basis. Such exercises can contribute to enhanced interoperability between navies and positively shape perceptions of shared security concerns.

The U.S. should also help the Indian and Japanese navies expand their maritime surveillance capabilities, which would enhance their ability to monitor and safeguard major sea lanes in their region.

The “axis of proliferation” linking North Korean and Pakistani nuclear weapons programs provide an impetus for Japan, India and the U.S. to coordinate and direct their non-proliferation policies toward these counties. Beyond these specific cases, however, Japan and the U.S. can enhance the credibility of non-proliferation efforts worldwide by taking the lead in redefining India’s relationship with global nonproliferation efforts. Despite its unwillingness to submit to the “nuclear apartheid” of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, New Delhi maintains an impeccable nonproliferation record. Japan could help bring India in from the cold by joining the U.S. in supporting its membership into major nonproliferation groupings such as the Australia Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime. Indian participation will bolster these organizations and strengthen the global nonproliferation norm, which is under assault in many quarters of the world.

A third area of mutual concern for India, Japan and the U.S. is the emerging security architecture of the Indo-Pacific region. Economic uncertainty in the United States, combined with the rapid rise of new powers, raises questions about the ability of the U.S.-led alliance system to continue as the foundation for regional stability. Both Tokyo and New Delhi see a continued U.S. presence as essential, while at the same time, Washington is keen to share the burden of maintaining regional security with other major powers. Closer security cooperation between the three nations can improve their ability to respond jointly to humanitarian crises in the region, such as the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, as well as collaborate to deter the prospect of military conflict in the region. Moreover, working together with like-minded nations, the trio can promote an open, rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.

New Delhi, Tokyo, and Washington’s shared interests do not guarantee mutual agreement at all times and in all places. Despite shared concerns over Iranian nuclear proliferation, for example, India and America’s preferred policy response could not be more different in their focus on engagement versus containment.

Similarly, meaningful trilateral security cooperation may be constrained by Japan’s unwillingness to raise its defense spending and India’s firm commitment to strategic autonomy. Nevertheless, in many areas there is a significant convergence of aims between the three nations. Trilateral cooperation among Asia’s major democratic powers, in support of concrete action, is an excellent vehicle for advancing these mutual interests and promoting an order in the Indo-Pacific region that enhances stability and prosperity for all nations.

Walter Ladwig is a doctoral candidate in international relations at Merton College, University of Oxford.