The launch of trilateral strategic consultations among the United States, India and Japan, and their decision to hold joint naval exercises this year, signals efforts to form an entente among the Asia-Pacific region’s three leading democracies. These efforts — in the world’s most economically dynamic region, where the specter of a power imbalance looms large — also have been underscored by the Obama administration’s new strategic guidance for the Pentagon. The new strategy calls for “rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific” and support of India as a “regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.”

At a time when Asia is in transition and troubled by growing security challenges, the U.S., India, and Japan are seeking to build a broader strategic understanding to advance their shared interests. Their effort calls to mind the pre-World War I Franco-British-Russian “Triple Entente” to meet the threat posed by the rapid rise of an increasingly assertive Germany.

This time, the impetus has been provided by China’s increasingly muscular foreign policy. But unlike the anti-German entente a century ago, the aim is not to contain China. Rather, U.S. policy is to use economic interdependence and China’s full integration into international institutions to dissuade its leaders from aggressively seeking Asian hegemony.

Indeed, the intention of the three democratic powers is to create an entente cordiale without transforming it into a formal military alliance, which they recognize would be counterproductive. Yet this entente could serve as an important strategic instrument to deter China’s rising power from sliding into arrogance. The three partners also seek to contribute to the construction of a stable, liberal, rules-based regional order.

After their recent first round of strategic dialogue in Washington, the U.S., Japan, and India will hold more structured discussions in Tokyo, aimed at strengthening trilateral coordination. Over time, the trilateral initiative could become quadrilateral with Australia’s inclusion. A parallel Australia-India-U.S. axis, however, is likely to precede the formation of any quadrilateral partnership, especially in view of the earlier failure to launch such a four-party coalition.

Important shifts in American, Japanese, and Indian strategic preferences and policies, however, are needed to build meaningful trilateral collaboration. Japan, America’s treaty ally, has established military interoperability only with U.S. forces. Following its 2008 security-cooperation declaration with India, Japan must also build interoperability with Indian naval forces, so that, as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said, “Japan’s navy and the Indian navy are seamlessly interconnected.”

American and Indian forces have conducted dozens of joint exercises in recent years, but some U.S. analysts complain that India still hews to “nonalignment” in power politics by guarding its strategic autonomy. In reality, India is just being more cautious, because it is more vulnerable to direct Chinese pressure from across a long, disputed Himalayan border. Whereas Japan is separated from China by an ocean and the U.S. is geographically distant, China has sharply escalated border violations and other incidents in recent years to increase pressure on India, even as the U.S. has maintained tacit neutrality on Sino-Indian disputes.

In view of America’s dire fiscal challenges, the Obama administration has just announced plans for a leaner military and greater reliance on regional allies and partners. This demands that the U.S. transcend its Cold War-era hub-and-spoke system, whose patron-client framework is hardly conducive to building new alliances (or “spokes”). India for example, cannot be a Japan to the U.S. Indeed, the U.S. has worked to co-opt India in a “soft alliance” devoid of treaty obligations.

The hub-and-spoke system, in fact, is more suited to maintain Japan as an American protectorate than to allow Japan to contribute effectively to achieving the central U.S. policy objective in Asia: a stable balance of power. A subtle U.S. policy shift that encourages Tokyo to cut its over-dependence on America and do more for its own defense can more effectively contribute to that equilibrium.

Such a shift is likely to be dictated by the U.S. imperative to cut defense expenditure further, in order to focus on the comprehensive domestic renewal needed to arrest the erosion in its relative power. If the U.S. is to rely less on prepositioned forward deployments and more on acting as an offshore balancer, it will need to make fundamental changes in its post-1945 security system.

The three entente parties must also understand the limits of their partnership. The broad convergence of their strategic objectives in the Asia-Pacific region does not mean that they will see eye-to-eye on all issues. Consider, for example, their earlier contrasting approaches toward Burma, or their current differences over the new U.S. energy sanctions against Iran.

Building true military interoperability within the entente will not be easy, owing to the absence of a treaty relationship between the U.S. and India, and to their forces’ different weapon systems and training. But given that no formal tripartite alliance is sought, limited interoperability may mesh well with this entente cordiale’s political objectives. Indeed, the entente’s political utility is likely to surpass its military value.

Even so, the deepening cooperation between the U.S., India and Japan can help to strengthen maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region — the world’s leading trade and energy seaway — and shape a healthy and stable Asian power equilibrium.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India, and Japan.” © 2012 Project Syndicate

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.