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Proposal for an India-Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Initiative


Trilateral is a recent engagement strategy which draws in three countries to a common platform to discuss and debate with a view to reach consensus and understanding on regional and global issues. The trilateral initiative encompasses bilateral process of meeting common grounds and transcends bilateral misunderstanding that may exist between two countries and beyond to a more holistic approach of seeking peace.

In the Asia-Pacific region, there already exists a host of trilateral dialogue process, notwithstanding bilateral acrimony and historical animosity that exists amongst participating countries. China-South Korea-Japan, India-Japan-US, India-Japan-Australia trilateral processes are some of the existing ones that are somewhat useful. The most recent trilateral dialogue process was initiated by India, Japan and South Korea, with India being the host of the first meeting, followed by Japan hosting the second is another useful process of seeking peace. This started at Track II level in June 2012 after some brainstorming meetings between diplomats and academics of the three countries.

Recent developments in Asia also call for exploring a similar trilateral dialogue either at Track II or Track 1.5 level between India, Japan and Vietnam. Ideally the first initiative should be held at Track II level but financial constraints may make it necessary to involve the foreign ministries of the three countries, which may make the funds available and so it can be started straightaway at Track 1.5 level.

The question that arises is, why between India, Japan and Vietnam? The answers are not difficult to find. The three countries share much in common in their views on regional security. Maritime commerce being the most important consideration for the three as bulk of current international trade is sea borne, naval cooperation between the three countries to secure the sea lanes of communication is the most important. There are many hotspots in the Asian region, most important being the Spartly Islands and South China Sea area, where a lot of resources are believed to be existing. There are many countries which have competing claims to this part of the sea and have identified their own exclusive economic zones. China’s entry into this area and claiming the whole of South China Sea has introduced a new dimension and threatens the peace and tranquillity of the region.

In view of the resource needs of India, Japan and Vietnam for their economic growth, exploiting the resources in the South China Sea with a cooperative framework is desirable. This cooperative venture is within the area of South China Sea that Vietnam claims its own. China has its own unilateral agenda and seems determined that not to happen. A trilateral dialogue process among the three countries will be useful to meet their common goals.

Apart from the maritime security issues, there are many other non-traditional security issues that can be discussed in such a forum. The issues such as climate change, deforestation, cyber security, water, environmental degradation, etc. are areas that affect all the countries and finding common grounds to address these will be helpful. Framework

As a start, three think tanks from the three countries may be identified for engaging in the dialogue. The government officials of the respective foreign ministries may be invited to make keynote speeches. Academics and security analysts drawn from the think tanks and outside may be engaged in closed door intense discussion to find common grounds. At the end of the discussion, they may come out with recommendations, which the respective governments may use it as policy inputs.

The country that floats the proposal first may host the inaugural meeting. In order the dialogue takes off, and not to waste time in bureaucratic processes to find resources, if the host country for the inaugural meeting can cover the cost of the participants from the other two countries, it will be morally obligatory for the other countries to manage their resources when their turn comes.

It must be made it clear from the beginning that the initiative is not aimed at meeting the China challenge and therefore there is not an anti-China agenda behind the initiative. This does not mean to suggest that China will not be an issue to be discussed. What are the triggers?

Significance of the Indian Ocean

According to Vice Admiral Hideaki Kaneda of Japan, the Malacca-Singapore Strait is the “lifeline of the Northeast Asian countries” covering China and South Korea as well as Japan, making it in a way the “Achilles’ tendon” in the world economy. Therefore, there is a need to take an incisive look at the concept of a Trilateral and later a multilateral security coalition to safeguard the SLOCs and global commons around Asia.

The strategic significance of the Malacca Strait is so huge that safeguarding this has emerged as a major consideration in the strategic thinking of countries whose economic interests are at stake. The threat of piracy and maritime terrorism always weigh in their strategic thoughts. Annually about 50,000 ships transit this Strait and they carry more than a quarter of the world’s maritime cargo, which constitute one half of entire trade volumes of Japan, China and South Korea. Seen differently, about 50 per cent of world’s tankers and about 85 per cent of oil tankers navigate from the Persian Gulf through the Indian Ocean and Malacca-Singapore Strait destined for the three countries in Northeast Asia. This brings in to the importance of the India-Japan-US trilateral initiative that has already begun. Though this dialogue has proved to be successful, it has become imperative for this forum to assume an additional responsibility by way of voluntary participation to safeguard the SLOCs of the East-West Expanded Asia in the Indo-Pacific region. This means that the trilateral initiative should graduate to the next stage of constructing a Trilateral Maritime Partnership to address to the issue of maritime security.

There is a growing sense of unease in countries of Asia about China’s aggressive maritime advancement and therefore there is a sense of urgency to forge cooperation among the countries of Asia to deal with the Chinese challenge. There are other stakeholders in Asia as well who could join this initiative. Countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and others have equal stake in securing their maritime commerce. Does it mean that some other trilateral or multilateral initiative be initiated to address to this issue? Not really. There is no need for direct government intervention and the coalition does not necessarily require an international agreement, treaty or convention but this multinational network based on mutual trust can address to the issue of global common. As such the issue of regional maritime security can be addressed appropriately.

Sea borne trade has played a crucial role in the economic development of many Asian countries. The strategic significance of the Indian Ocean can be deciphered from the fact that the region’s growth is inextricably linked to the Indian Ocean. The littoral states in the region are home to 2.6 billion people, almost 40 % of the world’s population. The Indian Ocean is the world’s third largest body of water, and the world’s leading energy and trade seaway. The volume of global trade brings with it the re-emerging problems of terrorism and piracy, a shared policing challenge for all littoral states. The security of the Indian Ocean goes to the heart of major Asian economies whose economic future lies on securing the SLOCs. There is need for these stake holders, therefore, to cooperate to enhance the regional security architecture, as a means to engage the strategic and military interests of emerging major powers.

The strategic attention of most littoral states has tended not to focus on maritime issues. However, economic interdependence is driving major powers to come together on the importance of maritime security. The Indian Ocean is the world’s most important international long-haul maritime route and ranks among the busiest highways for global trade and it will become a crucial global trading thoroughfare in the future, particularly in energy. Seventy percent of global oil shipments pass through the Indian Ocean on their way from the Middle East to the Pacific. Fifty percent of the world’s container traffic and twenty percent of Australia’s trade crosses the Indian Ocean. The proportion of world energy supplies passing through critical transport choke points, including the Straits of Malacca, the Straits of Hormuz, and the Suez Canal will increase in the coming years. Asian regional economies that have prospered from this maritime commerce, therefore, have shared interests to keep the sea lanes of communication open. Any threat to the security of trade in the Indian Ocean is a key strategic vulnerability. There is therefore a greater need now to maintain a maritime order in the Indian Ocean region in order to help maintain global stability.

The Indian Ocean has thus emerged as a vital trade hub for the world’s major powers to increasingly get engaged with the Indian Ocean issue. For example, 85 percent of China’s oil imports cross the Indian Ocean. China is therefore strengthening ties with many littoral states as a way of reinforcing its trade, energy, and economic interests in the region. China is increasing its stake in regional security affairs and deepening relationships with key countries in the region. But its methods of doing so have raised uncomfortable questions. Besides showing its assertiveness on territorial issues, it appears to steer a course that aims to rewrite the global norms on its own terms. Its claim over the entire South China Sea is a case in point. As regional economies continue to climb the ladder of prosperity deriving from increasing economic interdependence, there shall be greater competition to securing resources to sustain their economic growth. As a result, the strategic significance of the Indian Ocean will increase manifold over the years. A number of major naval powers are likely to increasingly compete for strategic advantage in this crucial maritime region. With China’s continued surge in economic growth and commensurate increase in defence expenditure, there are fears in smaller Asian countries over China’s intentions. This will drive the smaller regional players of Asia to find common ground to secure their national interests as Indian Ocean joins the Pacific Ocean in fostering global trade and this will form the centrality of their maritime strategy and defence planning. The China factor will continue to push such a drive in the rest of Asia, which will continue to seek regional stability and a rules-based security order.

The primary pre-condition to secure a rules-based security order is to respect the rule of law governing global trade. A peaceful environment at sea contributed regional economies to develop economic interconnectedness, thereby contributing to regional prosperity. Maritime transportation using secured SLOCs helped a great deal to achieve this. Transportation of oil from the Middle East passed through the secured SLOCs, connecting the Indian Ocean, Malacca-Singapore Strait, South China Sea and East China Sea, without much hiccups. Thus, the SLOCs proved to be the lifelines of the region. This peace now comes under threat because of China’s assertion on areas that have remained as global commons so far.

While the Malacca-Singapore Strait has remained the lifeline of the Northeast Asian countries covering China, South Korea and Japan, the large number of tanker shipments – 50 percent of world’s tankers and 85 percent of oil tankers – navigating from the Middle East region to the Northeast Asia pass through Indian Ocean and Malacca-Singapore Strait to reach their destinations. This means there is need for securing a broader SLOC, which has emerged as the lifeline for the unified region, extending beyond the Asia Pacific region toward the neighbouring waters of Indian Ocean and Oceania region.

Role of India

India is positioned in a critical place to play an important role in this expanded Asia, extending from east to west of Asia, even as Australia is in the expanded Asia extending from north to south of Asia. India is the most influential power in the Indian Ocean region. Its naval presence in the Indian Ocean region gives a sense of reassurance to its smaller Asian neighbours. Its credentials to command respect from its Asian neighbours are huge. Being the world’s largest democracy, India shares many common basic values and systems with Japan and other major sensible countries, such as freedom, democracy and market economy. Since its transition from a controlled economy and towards market economy beginning in early 1990s, India has leapfrogged quickly to integrate its economy into the international economy and in the process registered high economic growth rate by harnessing its high quality information technology and knowledge power. Spurred by its robust economic growth, India is in a position to exercise an active and multifaceted diplomacy and thereby enhancing its presence in the international community.

In pursuance of its Look East policy, India has an ambitious plan to develop road connectivity through its northeast region to the Southeast Asia via Myanmar. Though it was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s one pet project, unfortunately not much progress could be achieved during his two terms in office. Because of this deficiency, there is an increasing dependence on the broad SLOC passing through the region. As Admiral Kaneda observes, in both the Indian Ocean rim and the Asia Pacific, “maritime resource usage” or the “activity related to marine resources such as fisheries and ocean bottom resources is a key for their future development”. Any disturbance or disruption of the maritime security will adversely affect the economy and security of these regions and India has responsibility to prevent such an occurrence. Roles of India, Japan and Vietnam.

Under the above circumstances, what could be the roles of the three countries – India, Japan and Vietnam? There is a great deal of complementarity in the strategic and economic domains between the three countries and in view of the Chinese challenge, it becomes imperative that these three countries build a robust goal-oriented strategic partnership. The time is opportune as the US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq start withdrawing and the President Obama implements America’s Asia ‘pivot’ policy to rebalance its ties with its partners in the Asia Pacific region. China, India and Japan being the largest consumers of energy resources in Asia, there are bound to be some competition and scramble for resources. There is no guarantee that this competition will be healthy.

At this critical time of history, there is a greater need for the US to develop capabilities to exercise command of the sea lanes and willing to operate in the contested zones so that risk of confrontation is minimised or even averted. India-Japan-US trilateral initiative is already in place. There is a greater need now to sculpt trilateral dialogue between India, Japan and Vietnam and between India, Vietnam and Indonesia. An India-Japan-South Korea trilateral at Track-2 level has already started. Such initiatives would contribute a great deal towards confidence building process in the region and would be for common good.

China sees with jaundiced eye when Indo-US ties are strengthened. Similarly, when India and Japan consolidate their strategic and economic bonds, China sees this as a conspiracy hatched against China. In particular, Beijing feels unease with Indo-US nuclear deal. Given the close relationships between India and Russia during the cold war days, India must convey to Russia that it does not fall into Beijing’s trap to build a strategic relationship with China. India as a swing state would find itself in a tricky situation to strike a balance between American interests and Chinese assertions, while avoiding any non-military alliance with any. The question that remains unanswered, however, is how long India can avoid taking sides, given China’s continued surge? Now it seems to be inescapable for India that its strategic bonds between Japan and Vietnam are consolidated further. While Japan before and under Abe is deepening ties with the ASEAN by fostering trade and economic cooperation, India’s ties with the ASEAN are also strengthening. Whether the rise of China is driving India, Japan and Vietnam to build a trilateral partnership is not important; what is important is that these three countries have common stakes to build a partnership that would contribute to the peace and prosperity of the Asian region. For India, Vietnam is a suitable gateway towards more strategic engagement with ASEAN states. The increasing bonhomie between India and US has happily coincided with warmth in relationship between the US and Vietnam as demonstrated by the signing of 123 nuclear cooperation agreement between the two countries.

In view of the series of contentious issues between China and smaller Asian neighbours, and given the US commitments to support and defend its allies in times of crisis, the time seems is pregnant now for a new kind of cold war to start in the Asia-Pacific region between the US and its allies on one hand and China on the other. Though Asia is growing economically even when Europe is mired in economic slowdown, the Asian region is not politically unified and therefore China may find the environment suitable to exploit and implement its designs as per its defined national interests. The choice for the US is to maintain good relations with China as China holds huge American treasury bonds and thereby has the capability to drive the American economy into spin if it ever decides to pull out from the US bond market or strengthen strategic ties with countries like India, Japan and Vietnam.

The global financial crisis compels the US to work with Beijing with the hope that China continues to buy the US treasury bonds. Washington will find itself in a dilemma if it cannot strike a balance between its own national interests and persuade Beijing not to indulge in unnecessary aggressive posturing which will test its own alliance commitments. As Vietnam seems to be the only country to stand up to Chinese challenge singlehandedly, the onus lies on other Asian nations to rally around Vietnam to arrive at a consensus on how to deal with China. It makes logic therefore for Japan and India to partner with Vietnam to engage in a dialogue to deal with contentious issues that have been plaguing Asia in recent times. This would also suit the US interests if its alliance and strategic partners become more assertive militarily. The US will thus will be in a stronger position to develop capabilities to exercise command of the seas lanes and thus contribute to regional security. Such an approach will also help to keep China under check as its military ambitions continue to threaten the Asian strategic balance.

With the heightening of tensions in Asia over territorial claims on disputed areas in Asia, though an immediate conflict does not seem likely but an unease situation to continue is not ideal for any country’s interests. As India continues to work towards integrating its economy with the economies of Asia and Northeast Asia through its Look East policy, the time is opportune for India, Japan and Vietnam to join together to establish a triangular framework of engagement to work for peace in Asia. Notwithstanding its constitutional constraints that bars Japan to deploy its forces abroad for defending its interests by use of force, the potentials of its military is in no way less comparable in terms of ability, accuracy and potent. Vietnam’s military strength, though no match to China’s massive military capability, must never be underestimated. Both these countries have the reputation to fighting big powers and defeating them. India is not only a nuclear weapons state but is also modernising its armed forces. Defence and military cooperation between the three countries on bilateral basis are already in place. In the wake of the changes in the strategic and security landscape occurring in the Asia-Pacific region, an India-Japan-Vietnam triangular relationship acquires urgency. To make a beginning, institutionalising a trilateral dialogue at Track-2 level would be an ideal start.

Looking Ahead

If this initiative makes a good beginning, this will be a strong initiative towards confidence-building in the region. At a later stage, the US may be invited as an observer. This is because the US is the only country in the world that has played in the past and is likely continue to play in the coming decades a stabilizing role in Asia. All the three countries have warm relations with the US in economic and security realms and it will be useful in fostering understanding if the US is kept on the loop. (the Writer Dr. Rajaram Panda, is The Japan Foundation Fellow (2013-14) at the Reitaku University, Japan. E-mail:

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