India-Japan-US trilateralism: Shaping the Indo-Pacific and its challenges

By – Simran Walia,

The evolution of the Indo-Pacific region has its origins in the interest of dependence on the Sea lanes of the Indian Ocean for energy and trade. China’s growing assertiveness in the region has driven both India and Japan to have a reformed partnership with the US, keeping in mind the presence of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. India’s collaboration with Japan in the region underlines the political and strategic trust between India and Japan. The growing cooperation of the US, Japan and India on various issues regarding infrastructure development and maritime security reflects that each nation views China’s aggressive behaviour with caution. How does India-Japan-US cooperation in the Indo-Pacific remain vital  to countering China’s belligerence in the region? In the post-pandemic order, what differences have emerged between the three nations in terms of their strategic interests and conduct vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific?

In 2016 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Japan, he made his desire of strengthening the relations between India and Japan and labelled their relations as, ‘special strategic and global partnership’. While their bilateral relations have been deepening, Modi and then Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seemed keen on nurturing an emerging trilateral relationship with the United States. In the joint statement, the two leaders agreed on the need to expand their bilateral relations to promote trilateral cooperation with major partners in the regions, one of them being the US. The trilateral aimed to promote the rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific and increase engagement with the ASEAN countries to provide an alternative to the Chinese investments, which would lay the groundwork for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. 

The trilateral also fits together with the Obama administration’s dire commitment to ‘Rebalance to Asia’ by encouraging its allies. The three sides held the inaugural US-Japan-India trilateral dialogue in 2015 at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The current Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga also supports the trilateral cooperation between the three countries and aims at enhancing it over time. 

Their trilateral relations have seen a boost since 2015 when India decided to include Japan as a permanent participant in its annual Malabar naval exercises with the United States.. The decision to expand the Malabar exercises is a significant yet turning point for the US-Japan-India relationship. The three countries have also been a part of the revitalized Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) framework with Australia. Malabar’s expansion also saw Canberra’s inclusion in 2020 which further enunciated the continued importance of the exercise. 

Maritime security remains a central pillar in this trilateral relationship. The navies of the three countries also meet at the biennial RIMPCA exercise, where India started participating since 2014. Furthermore, Indian and Japanese navies too meet for bilateral exercise JIMEX. This trilateral cooperation has been promoted further in areas like counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism, security in areas like space and cyberspace and quality infrastructure investment. 

Japan has also demonstrated leadership in terms of connecting the economic growth poles in the subregions of the Indo-Pacific through its Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI). Moreover, Japan is working with both India and the US to advance infrastructure, connectivity and capacity building in the Indo-Pacific. 

China continues to increase its involvement in the Indian Ocean region as well as the South China Sea, with the development and infrastructure projects of Bangladesh and Pakistan. New Delhi’s concerns regarding Beijing’s intentions in the region has pushed its alignment closer to the US-Japan alliance. Their trilateral cooperation is also significant because it helps in connecting the US alliances and partnerships in East Asia with a South Asian anchor in India. The recent takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban has also put pressure on other countries like China, Japan and India to provide support to the region for ensuring peace. In this regard, Japan has been supporting the country through its aid and assistance and this trilateral framework could further work towards ensuring peace in the region, wherein, India and Japan could contribute towards peace in Afghanistan. 

Country specific positions on the Trilateral 

Japan was the first country to come up with the notion of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region. The then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called this region, the ‘Seas of prosperity, governed by freedom, rule of law and the market economy and that it would be free from force or coercion’. In 2016, at the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI), Abe unveiled Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy (FOIP). The fundamental aim of the strategy is shared prosperity which also necessitates improving connectivity and infrastructure projects along with maintaining peace and stability. 

PM Suga has also emphasized the FOIP strategy and visited the United States to meet with President Joe Biden in April 2021. One of the main agendas of their meeting was cooperating and strengthening the vision of the Indo-Pacific region. Japan has been trying to protect its interests in the East China sea against the rampant intrusions by China around the Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by China as Diaoyu Islands. Japan claims this area as Senkaku Islands, which is spread across the Pacific Ocean and the Pacific Coast of the US and Canada. This area endures a significant volume of commercial and military traffic and is an important SLOC for Japan. Therefore, to protect these lanes and keep them free and open to sustain trade, Japan aims to build a network of US allies. Furthermore, the core element of Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy is economic in terms of identifying and expanding cross-cutting sectors that allow Tokyo to displace China while creating regional security. 

Concurrently, India is considered a vital partner in Japan’s FOIP strategy owing to their shared vision of goals as they are the Asian maritime powers. The two countries have been strengthening their cooperation in areas of maritime security, connectivity and also as stakeholders in the QUAD. One of the common concerns of these three nations is that of China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region, for which they cooperate and make efforts in strengthening their position in the region and counter Chinese moves. India also unveiled its Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative which was followed by PM Modi’s vision of the Indo-Pacific. India also found consonance in Japan’s Vientiane Vision 2.0, whose objective is to ensure the rule of law, maritime security, capacity building and disaster prevention. This consonance proves to be pertinent for the US for the trilateral to flourish further in terms of securing peace in the Indo-Pacific region. 

At the Quad summit held in March 2021, India held the position of navigating through political and security concerns along with ensuring stability and peace in the Indo-Pacific. India also seeks to uphold the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific and to serve as a net security provider in the region. India’s relationships with partners across the region determine the nature of India’s role and its participation in networks like the Quad and the trilateral arrangements, such as that between India-US-Japan. The Biden administration can also capitalize on its opportunities to cooperate with India and showcase its vision for the Indo-Pacific by collaborating on capacity building, infrastructure development and the region’s post-pandemic recovery. 

India and Japan have made steady progress towards Tokyo’s first large defence sale. Furthermore, Japan has also provided India with the US-2 amphibian aircraft which enables better defence relations between the two. The deepening ties between India and Japan are crucial for the interplay with the United States. As ties between India and Japan grow closer strategically, there will be a push from Tokyo to align closely with the United States. Beijing sees the relationship between India and Japan as a concern, which would further bolster the trilateral cooperation between the US, Japan and India. 

In Washington, the Biden Administration believes that India is critical to the US strategy of the Indo-Pacific as the two countries share a common vision for it to be free and open, amidst China’s growing assertiveness. In line with the common vision of the US and India, Japan also comes to play a crucial role as it was the first country to come up with the concept of the free and open Indo-Pacific. The United States has also played a vital role in signalling Tokyo and New Delhi that further accelerated growth in their strategic relationship. 

Challenges ahead of their trilateral cooperation 

India has been an important country in the geopolitical strategic alignment which is influencing the Indo-Pacific strategy in the US and Japan. All three nations are highly committed to securing a stable rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific. 

All three countries have their down divergences with China but Japan’s strategy is shaped by the complex interplay of security and economic interests within the Japan-US-China. Tokyo’s approach in the Indo-Pacific is also shaped by the quality infrastructure financing, promoting trade liberalization and trying to put efforts to ease the tensions with Beijing. Washington has been nurturing a zero-sum competition with Beijing by committing to rules-based economic governance. 

The US also believes in the networked security architecture and the Quad, which does not align with the trilateral cooperation between the US, India and Japan. It is believed that if there is an escalating competition of the US with Beijing, the US would have to consider the military dimensions of the Quad to uphold the international order. China sees the Quad as a military alliance aimed at containing China and also as a Japanese attempt to marginalize China. However, the Quad is founded on issue-based alignment and is not a military alliance. 

To keep the SLOC free and open to sustain trade, Japan has aimed to build a network of US allies, despite Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It is a part of Abe’s economic policy in helping Japan combat deflation with private investment. America’s withdrawal from the TPP and India’s issues with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) have created uncertainties on trade multilateralism rather than providing clarity of the three nation’s economic vision for the Indo-Pacific.

There is also a concern of Tokyo relying on Beijing for trade as it is Japan’s top trading partner despite tensions over the Senkaku islands. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Japan planned on diversifying its supply chains elsewhere to lessen the burden on China and reduce its reliance on China. 

India’s strategy is complementary to the US and Japan’s strategy for the region, and has emphasised on ‘inclusiveness’ in its Indo-Pacific position. However, not being on the same page is a major hindrance for the trilateral. 

There is also a lot of scope to scale up the trilateral cooperation in areas such as counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism, maritime security and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). Furthermore, there is a need to formalise the JAI trilateral dialogue through regular summit level meetings and also the expansion of the multidimensional partnership to areas that are beyond strategic issues. 

The US, Japan and India will benefit in security and prosperity terms from stability in the Indo-Pacific and have a joint responsibility to safeguard this order. The three nations should focus on strengthening their trilateral cooperation through the Malabar exercises. 

Since India and Japan have signed the logistics agreement, that is, Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) in 2020, the three nations could look for ways to improve the logistical coordination through ACSA.

Despite certain challenges and Quad being at the forefront, the three nations have been managing common security concerns such as securing the maritime global commons and combating terrorism quite efficiently. Japan has also shown its leadership through the expanded partnership for quality infrastructure. Tokyo is working separately with India and the US to advance infrastructure, connectivity and capacity building in the Indo-Pacific. Japan and India have also collaborated in conceptualizing third country cooperation through the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC). Third-country collaborative infrastructure cooperation has also started to take shape in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The idea is purely to coordinate bilaterally and also within the trilateral framework of India-US-Japan for advancing strategic infrastructure. 

The US-Japan-India trilateral Infrastructure Working Group can also explore projects like the Mekong-river basin and the Bay of Bengal. The three nations can explore opportunities to cooperate in new technologies and digital infrastructure. 

It is important to understand that the US, Japan and India will have to work bilaterally and trilaterally to make China engage in maintaining the liberal order. In the coming times, due to the complexity in the geopolitical nature of the Indo-Pacific region, it will be a crucial trilateral framework to look forward to in the future. There have been a lot of emerging trilaterals in the Indo-Pacific region and the recent one being, the US, The UK and Australia (AUKUS). The four leaders of the QUAD will be meeting recently in Washington, wherein they will discuss China’s aggressive behaviour in the region, Covid situation and how the world will grapple with the post-Covid situation, Tech supply and Supply chain resilience.

Simran Walia is a Research Scholar, pursuing M.Phil in Japanese Studies under the Centre for East Asian Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Prior to this, she was working as a Research Assistant at ORF, New Delhi. She has published articles and papers in magazines and websites like ‘The diplomat’, ‘the Geopolitics’, ‘Indian Defence Review’, Global Policy Journal and elsewhere. Her research interests include Japanese politics and foreign policy and East Asian foreign policy too. she can be reached at Twitter handle: @simranwalia10

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