Project: Asia Programme

Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme

Two immediate challenges – the rise of China and uncertainty surrounding the policy priorities of the Trump administration – are powerful spurs for a closer partnership between the three countries.

Japan's prime minister, Shinzō Abe, and India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, attend the East Asia Summit in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw, on 13 November 2014. Photo credit: © Christophe Archambault/StaffJapan's prime minister, Shinzō Abe, and India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, attend the East Asia Summit in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw, on 13 November 2014. Photo credit: © Christophe Archambault/Staff

Summary

  • Doubts about the reliability and durability of the international order and regional stability are increasing the pressure on Australia, India and Japan to develop new forms of cooperation to hedge against uncertainty. The three countries have a chance to consolidate and widen their existing bilateral partnerships, and to explore new opportunities for trilateral cooperation. In time, their ‘creative minilateralism’ could extend to quadrilateral cooperation involving the US.
  • The steady upward trajectory in formal and informal cooperation between Australia, India and Japan has been shaped by economic complementarity, as well as by political fundamentals such as common commitment to the rule of law, democratic governance and multilateralism. It has occurred in the context of Japan’s move to ‘normalize’ its security posture and thus take a more active role in regional defence affairs. Cooperation has further been driven by security anxieties over the rise of China, and – not least – by individual political leaders’ enthusiasm for closer links.
  • Japan’s ties with Australia have developed gradually over the post-war period, overcoming a difficult reconciliation process but supported by a shared commitment to regional integration and by the strongly complementary nature of their economies. The two countries have developed a joint security dialogue, and reciprocal security resourcing and information-sharing arrangements. The economic partnership has also deepened, with trade in raw materials especially prominent. Evolution of their respective alliances with the US will remain critical to Australia–Japan relations.
  • Cooperation between India and Japan has been driven by the former’s move, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, away from its tradition of non-alignment, and by a shared desire to contain China. Recognizing the importance of economic relations with China, however, both India and Japan have pragmatically avoided a zero-sum approach. In the economic sphere, India has become the largest recipient of Japanese development assistance. It has actively courted Japanese investment, and offers significant opportunities for Japanese infrastructure companies. Minilateral initiatives hold considerable promise in terms of more effective diplomacy – along with trilateral and quadrilateral security cooperation.
  • The Australian–Indian relationship is the least developed side of the emerging triangular partnership. Australia’s alignment with India in recognizing the centrality of the Indo-Pacific region in its strategic thinking provides a potential basis for increased security cooperation, but commitment on both sides is arguably more aspirational than concrete. Scope for new defence technology partnerships has been undercut by Australian worries about corruption and red tape. A Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement is being negotiated, but differences on trade liberalization have impeded progress.
  • Overall, the potential for enhanced security cooperation between Australia, India and Japan is probably the best it has ever been. New and more flexible minilateral alliances and security partnerships offer a valuable means to confront non-traditional security challenges. Much of the evidence to date suggests an increased appetite for eschewing grand strategic designs but still cooperating where particular interests overlap or converge. However, much will also depend on how China and the US respond to regional challenges.