Creative trilateralism in Asia

The latest edition of joint naval exercises between India and the United States in the Bay of Bengal from Oct 14 to 19 involved Japan for the first time in eight years, carrying repercussions for Asian security.

Japan is expected to henceforth join the drills, codenamed Malabar, not as a guest but as a permanent participant. Its impending promotion to an integral part of this annual showcasing of naval inter-operability advances trilateral strategic coordination with India and the US. It reflects a new Asia-Pacific strategic landscape. For the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF), entering the Malabar drills on a full-time basis brings benefits of capacity-building as it tries to fulfil the enlarged role envisaged by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his military. Transitioning from a defensive and minimalist navy into a proactive one cannot be accomplished unless the JMSDF is exposed to what Malabar's organisers label as "complex high-end warfighting" experiences.

Some observers have attributed Japan's upcoming admission into Malabar's institutional architecture to US persuasion of India. But given Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's conviction about Japan's centrality to India's rise, he scarcely needs coaxing by Washington to let the JMSDF in as a permanent fixture of the Malabar war games.

The evolution of India's position on who is "in" and "out" of these multilateral naval engagements explains much about the changing nature of its diplomacy and force posturing. In 2007, when Japan, Australia and Singapore first joined the Malabar war games through India's invitation, China issued a robust diplomatic protest against it as a manoeuvre by the US' allies and friends to gang up and contain China's ascent. Beijing's peevish reaction worried New Delhi and forced the latter to reduce the multinational character of Malabar in subsequent iterations. The cautious Indian establishment of that time decided against military moves of a scale and dimension that could anger China and disturb peace and tranquillity between Asia's two biggest nations.

But Indian deference to Chinese preferences started shifting in response to three transforming strategic realities, viz a blossoming partnership between New Delhi and Tokyo, New Delhi's ambition to shape the Indo-Pacific maritime order, and Beijing's eschewing of previous restraints to strong-arm neighbours over territorial and natural resource disputes in the East China and South China seas.

One outstanding success story that Indian diplomats boast of in the last half decade is the nurturing of a special bond with Japan. For both economic and geopolitical reasons, New Delhi and Tokyo have grown into bosom friends. The warmth and trust between Mr Modi and Mr Abe are unparalleled and indicate that these formerly distanced Asian powers now see nothing but convergence.

Mr Modi's muscular approach rests on a nationalistic "India first" geostrategy that is not obsequious to Chinese or, for that matter, American wishes. He dreams of India setting the terms and rules of the Indo-Pacific theatre rather than bending to external pressures.

If foreign policy is a psychological play of national will and determination, Mr Modi seems to be succeeding. It is noteworthy that Beijing's response to this year's Malabar drills has been less livid than was the case earlier when Japan used to be an occasional invitee to these exercises. Not even the prospect that Japan is henceforth going to be a permanent third leg of Malabar has caused much panic in Beijing.

Has China realised it cannot compel Mr Modi and reconciled to respecting India's choices on its maritime security? China's state-owned Global Times has issued the standard warning that "India should be vigilant to any intentions of roping it into an anti-China camp". But it also concedes that India "has stuck to independent foreign policies and never wants to be part of any coalition to contain China".

For all the heralding of a "natural alliance" between India and the US to counter China, the Indian navy has never signed up for the US-commanded Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a multinational naval grouping of 30 countries. Unlike Japan, which is a treaty ally of the US and a core member of CMF, India believes in maintaining independence from American-designed endeavours that ultimately serve US interests. So, India's presence as the lead initiator of Malabar gives some assurance to China that a trilateral US-Japan-India formation is not aimed squarely and entirely at it.

Last month, India, Japan and the US held their first Trilateral Ministerial dialogue and highlighted common goals of protecting "freedom of navigation" and upholding the "importance of international law", while explicitly mentioning the South China Sea. The message was unmistakably directed at Beijing. Yet, India's avoidance of formal alliance with the US and its parallel interest in managing its rivalry with China leaves room for creative trilateralism in Asia. New Delhi's "multi-vectored diplomacy" can afford to push back against Beijing's regional encroachment without having to yoke itself to an American agenda.

•The writer is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2015, with the headline 'Creative trilateralism in Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe