India, Japan and the US Step on the Gas

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Obama and  Singh participate at Hyderabad House, New Delhi.
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh participate in a bilateral meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, Nov. 8, 2010.

The third trilateral dialogue between India, Japan and the United States was held in New Delhi on 29 October 2012. This series of dialogues began on 19 December 2011 in Washington DC, with a second held in Tokyo on 23 April 2012. The Indian delegation at the New Delhi meeting was led by the Joint Secretary for East Asia in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Gautam Bambawale, the Japanese delegation by the Deputy Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kenji Hiramatsu, and the US delegation by Robert Blake, the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia.

The three countries discussed a wide variety of issues from the prospects of cooperation between the three countries in Myanmar, Africa and Afghanistan, as well as ways and means to pool their resources in the fight against piracy.

Plenty to Talk About

The US delegation also raised the issue of Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program. New Delhi and Washington have significant differences over the way the international community should manage this issue, especially because Iran is a major supplier of oil to India. In addition, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s late-August attendance at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Tehran was not well-received in the United States.

The three sides also discussed opening a motorway from India to Vietnam via Myanmar, a state that was until now the lost-link in New Delhi’s much-vaunted “Look-East Policy.” Now that it is making rapid progress towards democracy, India stands to benefit greatly. There are immense opportunities for India, Japan and the United States to collaborate in helping strengthen democracy in Myanmar and in improving its ramshackle infrastructure. Aung San Suu Kyi’s 6-day visit to India at the end of November — a country where she studied and where her mother served as ambassador — is also expected to renew Myanmar-India ties.

Contentious issues, like the recent intensification of territorial disputes in the South China Sea were also discussed. It needs no reiteration that China’s recent hard-line stance has set off alarm bells around the world. The recent induction of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is also sure to be a game-changer as far as the maritime balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region is concerned.

The trilateral also gained in significance as a result of the United States’ “pivot” towards Asia. While it remains to be seen whether this “pivot” will extend beyond the Obama administration’s second term office, it is nevertheless clear that Washington cannot afford to ignore the Asia-Pacific region for both economic and military reasons. Indeed, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy the American economy would gain from even closer engagement with the rising economies of the Asia-Pacific region, including China and India.

The Response from Beijing

Although India, Japan and the United States were careful not to label this trilateral dialogue as an initiative directed at China, their focus nevertheless generated concerns in Beijing. Following this dialogue, China’s influential Global Times wrote that “to suppress China’s rise, great financial support will be needed. The US cannot afford this alone but neither can Japan or India. As long as China insists on a peaceful rise, targeting China will not be a serious idea.”

However, New Delhi, Tokyo and Washington can by no means afford to wreck their ties with Beijing. The bilateral relations between India, Japan and the United States with China will also depend to a great extent on the directions taken by the new generation of Chinese leaders that came to power following the 18th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

An Increasingly Assertive India

The trilateral dialogue also provided additional opportunities for India to build upon its diplomatic ties with Japan. India is keen to sign a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Japan and has also agreed to jointly explore and extract rare-earth metals with Tokyo. For India, its change in strategy represents a major leap of faith, since it has always shied away from any kind of engagement that might be even remotely construed as being directed against China. It goes without saying that while the trilateral dialogue partners are not on the same page on some issues, the future will see increasing synergies between them in terms of defense and economic development as cooperation offers “win-win” opportunities for all.

By taking part in the trilateral dialogue with Japan and the United States, India has signaled that it is finally willing to jettison its overly cautious attitude.

Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the School of Liberal Studies, Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, Gujarat, India. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for International Studies, the University of Cambridge in 2009. The views expressed here are his own.

For additional reading on this topic please see:
China-India Defence Diplomacy: Weaving a New Sense of Stability
Life at 60 in Japan-India Relationship
India-Japan-US Trilateral Dialogue: A Promising Initiative

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s featured editorial content and Security Watch.

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