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Abbott, Abe and Modi can realign Asia-Pacific

By David Lang

Australia is well positioned to seize upon the goodwill and personal rapport between prime ministers Tony Abbott, Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi, as the strategic, defence and security interests of Australia, Japan and India coalesce.

Senior foreign affairs officials from the three nations gathered in New Delhi last month to explore how they might work together to meet shared regional security challenges.

Following the meeting — the first of its kind — Japanese Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Akitaka Saiki said 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 co-operated on security matters alongside the US in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which wrapped up in 2008 at the behest of the newly elected Rudd government because of concern about China’s reaction.

That the three countries 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.

Relations between Japan and India, Asia’s oldest democracies, have been reinvigorated over the past 12 months by an alignment of the political stars. Abe and Modi are conservative, nationalist leaders of populous democracies who came to power professing a commitment to transformational economic reform and the restoration of national pride.

Abbott is cut from similar cloth, and has quickly built close relations with his Japanese and Indian counterparts. Together they are three of a kind.

Beyond personal qualities and close relationships at the head-of-state level, Australia, Japan and India, three strategically located maritime democracies, share a timely alignment of interests, values and concerns. All want to preserve a stable and peaceful regional order governed by rules and norms. All share core values, including democracy, freedom and the rule of law. And all are concerned by China’s military build-up and increasingly belligerent attempts to force a shift in the regional status quo.

Australia should now lean forward to develop the trilateral with Japan and India with a focus on diplomatic and military activities.

The defence and foreign ministers of the three countries could convene to discuss issues of mutual concern and identify opportunities for collaboration. Trilateral head-of-state consultations could be arranged on the sidelines of annual multilateral meetings in which all are parties: the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum have the right flavour, and the G20 could be a useful backstop.

Such meetings are public statements that the three countries have overlapping interests and see value in making investments in their ministerial and executive relationships. Moreover, hierarchy is important in Asia: if the trilateral is to have legs, it needs buy-in from senior Australian leaders.

Military-to-military contacts are a practical and tangible trilateral pursuit. Australia and Japan have overlapping interests in the maritime domain, just as Australia and India do; but it isn’t entirely clear where the maritime interests of Japan and India meet.

To shine a light on this uncertainty, the three nations should initially focus on sharing situational intelligence through anti-submarine warfare activities to develop a theatre-wide operating picture.

Such activities present an opportunity to develop interoperability and a shared understanding of naval capabilities; they should also illuminate where the troika’s maritime interests intersect. This approach increases the likelihood that a cogent, valuable and sustainable maritime agenda can be developed.

Beyond the maritime commons, the three countries should also look for opportunities to co-operate on cyber defence.

While the strategic convergence between the three is based on a range of complementary factors, our nations are very different beasts and a range of obstacles will naturally trouble trilateral co-operation. It is essential that such points of difference are kept in mind as a realistic trilateral agenda is reconciled and realised over the coming years.

For Australia, leading the trilateral would give us an opportunity to pursue our interests and propagate our values across the region with like-minded liberal democracies. Such an initiative further shows that we are willing to take on a greater and more public responsibility within our alliance and shoulder some of the regional security burden.

It also presents a chance to demonstrate the independence of our foreign policy and strategic decision-making, showing that our capacity to act is autonomous of our relations both with our chief security partner, the US, and our most important trading partner, China.

The trilateral is another tool to demonstrate to China that its destabilising campaign is out of step with regional expectations and that its neighbours will speak out and tighten their relations in response.

David Lang is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He is the author of a new report released by ASPI today.

Originally published by: The Australian on 09 Jul 2015