Trilateralism is on the rise across the Asia–Pacific as states seek safety in numbers, diversifying their relations in response to an increasingly uncertain regional security environment. On 8 June 2015, senior foreign affairs officials from Australia, Japan and India, including secretary-level representatives, gathered in New Delhi to explore how the three nations might work together to meet shared regional challenges; maritime security topped the agenda. Following the meeting—the first of its kind—Japan’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Akitaka Saiki, stated that the three nations ‘are on the same page’ with regard to China’s ‘aggressive attitude’, while Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Peter Varghese undercut suggestions that the trilateral meeting could be considered an ‘anti-China front’.
The three countries last cooperated on security matters alongside the US in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which wrapped up in 2008 at the behest of Australia’s newly elected Rudd government because of concern about China’s reaction. That the three have now reconvened security-focused discussions (with potential spin-off naval activities) speaks not only to a shared understanding of China’s rise and the challenges of regional security, but also to their collective willingness to play a greater role in Asia–Pacific security matters.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi share a deep personal chemistry. Both are conservative, nationalist, pro-business leaders who came to power pledging to rejuvenate their flagging economies and restore national pride. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is cut from similar cloth, and has quickly built close relations with his Japanese and Indian counterparts.
Indeed, beyond personal qualities and close relationships at the head-of-state level, there’s a growing alignment of interests, values and concerns among Australia, Japan and India. All share an interest in preserving a peaceful and stable regional order and avoiding a Pax Sinica. All value democracy, freedom and the rule of law. And all are concerned by China’s military build-up, defiance of international law and norms and increasingly assertive attempts to unilaterally force a shift in the regional status quo. While it’s important to recognise that the three nations are very different beasts, this broad strategic convergence presents a unique opportunity to the leaders and their nations.
This paper explores the extent to which the current strategic alignment between Australia, Japan and India offers a sound basis for deepening cooperation to reinforce the rules-based regional order. It concludes that an alignment of the political stars, a diplomatic consensus on China and a tightening of bilateral relations mean that Australia should now lean forward to fortify our trilateral dialogue and cooperation with Japan and India, so contributing to the stable and open region in which our American ally continues to play a significant role. A coalition of like-minded Asia–Pacific maritime democracies would seek to balance against China, further complicate China’s strategic calculus and encourage Beijing to engage as a responsible stakeholder in the existing rules-based order.