The Asian Century is a departure from the Atlantic epoch in all forays. The focus is now on littoral states who aim to secure the freedom of navigation on the high seas. As Robert D. Kaplan explains, the difference between the 20th century and 21st is in the geography; Europe was a landscape and Asia is a seascape. This implies a shift in grand strategies and military doctrines from army to naval or rather air-sea domains of military and political influence. Overlooking the Indian Ocean is India with Blue Water naval ambitions and sustaining India’s goals in the maritime domain is the US-Japan-India trilateral dialogue.


The seventh US-Japan-India trilateral meeting was held in Honolulu in June this year. American Vice President Joe Biden at an event in Carnegie Endowment celebrating the ten year anniversary of Indo-US nuclear deal elevated the trilateral dialogue to a ministerial meeting between the foreign ministers of respective countries. This re-alignment of priorities is a visible declaration of symmetry in thinking. The countries share a synergy of interests and goals in tackling issues concerning the freedom of global commons. India’s “Act East” policy dovetails US’s “Re-balance to Pacific” policy and Japan’s “Proactive Contribution to Peace”.


Trilateral partnerships are an emerging diplomatic configuration of shared temporary goals, flexible postures and agendas. While international relations are not being practiced in the traditional Cold War logic, they are nonetheless being pulsated by national interests which are still territory-driven, with importance to capturing markets and allies, and peaceful transit of resources.


In a multi polar Asia, the simultaneous expanse of political influence by China, India and Japan leave no room for zero-sum strategies, neither for chessboard like fault lines across borders nor for any "Iron Curtain" that once divided a Communist bulwark against the liberal democracies of the West. This re-alignment of shared visions and goals has been a recent phenomenon and has been slightly politicized because of the contra-distinct experiences the three countries share of the Cold War.


Firstly, in the present context trilateral dialogues appear to be an ideal framework of diplomatic cooperation for countries like India who is wary of the word alliances because of the implicit requirement of resigning some amount of sovereignty and autonomy. India’s colonial experience under the British had cast a shadow on US-India relations for most part of the Cold War. Imperialist policies and interference in domestic affairs of states threatened India’s autonomy in decision making and territorial independence which was achieved after a long freedom struggle.


Similarly, Japan never recognized the United States as an “ally”in their documents much until 1981 despite having signed the Security Treaty in 1951 (later revised in 1960). Bilateral alliances are tenuous to sustain because of constant need to align- mutual expectations, response to challenges and negotiate over burden sharing. Within the US-Japan alliance, Japan had expressed “fear of entrapment” in the proxy wars led by US against erstwhile Soviet Union and “fear of abandonment” after the implosion of the Soviet Union when the utility of the alliance came into question. The shift in the balance of power in the international system has had a huge impact on recalibration of this alliance. Japan presently appears to be vigorously expanding its political influence through the structure of the US-Japan alliance and encouraging third partners/allies (India, Australia, Philippines and Vietnam) to join aboard.


The United Statesmeanwhile in a multipolar security environment is expanding the San Francisco “hub and spoke” alliance system to institutionalise interactions with “friends and partners”. After enjoying its “unipolar moment”, its current omnipresence in economic, security domain is in question as it stands to defend the status quo in the international system. In an interview to the Harvard Gazette, Joseph Nye summarized American woes, “…the combination of more state actors and more powerful non-state actors makes a world in which it’s harder to get things done. This is sometimes called entropy, the inability to get work done...But I worry more about entropy than I worry about China.”


In a series of declaratory statements the United States has emphatically re-iterated India’s pivotal role as a key partner and a “natural ally” in the region. India and the United States earlier in January this yearreleased a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Regionhighlighting shared concerns over Chinese maritime aggression in the South China Sea. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter during his visit to India in the month of June signed a ten yeardefense framework agreement and reemphasized the India-US Defense Trade and TechnologyInitiative. Additionally, in theAsia Pacific Maritime Security Strategy, United States eulogisesIndia’s exemplar role in conducting international relations and resolving its territorial disputes with Bangladesh peacefully in tandem with international law (unlike China in South China and East China Sea). This document released by the Department of Defense re-emphasised India’s role as the “net security provider” in the region and aims to leverage India as a “leading power”. This catchphrase first articulated by Indian Foreign Secretary Dr. S. Jaishankar while delivering the Fullerton Lecture at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) on “India, the United States and China”, stated that India looks to transforming itself from a “balancing power to a leading power”. Later, US Ambassador to India, Richard Vermawhile delivering a lecture at the Observer Research Foundation New Delhi, asserted the same vision for India. The countries plan to strengthen maritime capacity building, along with launching a space dialogue and will soon begin to negotiate designs to build India’s next aircraft carrier.


Meanwhile the shadow of China looms over the trajectory of Indo-Japanese relations. Both countries with different geopolitical outlooks share disputed territories with China. A Confucian saying goes, “no two tigers can occupy one mountain.” China's contest with Japan in East Asia and China's complex relations with India in the Indian Ocean Region is a fitting context for the statement. The change in leadership in both the democratic countries in 2014, led to a more decisive turn in the bilateral relations. In September 2014, the Tokyo Declaration wassigned and a “Special Strategic Partnership” was pronounced. They share “an exceptional consensus”- over critical maritime inter-connection, growing international responsibilities, rule of law, open global trade regime. Japan as a result of relaxed defense exports policy is under negotiations with India over US-2 Shinmaywa amphibious aircrafts. While India and Japan conduct bilateral naval exercises titled JIMEX, sources revel that India has invited Japan to its bilateral exercise with the United States, making it the first trilateral exercise.


Finally, US and Japan re-negotiated the strategic bargain within their bilateral alliance to meet new challenges. Four major developments bolstered the alliance- the speech by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Joint Session of Congress, the release of the Revised Defense Guidelines for Security and Cooperation, the passing of Trade Promotional Authority bill by US Senate, lastly the re-interpretation of one part of the Article 9 in Japanese Constitution allowing “collective self defense” i.e. the right to use minimum level of force in self-defense against a military attack on Japan or another country in close relationship with Japan. Fears of US reassurance in times of relative decline, budgetary constraints to maintain a force posture probed Japan to share a larger responsibility within the alliance.


However, the direction and pace of US-Japan-India trilateral arrangement is proportional to Chinese behavior in the international system, particularly the maritime sphere. India is in between a rock and a hard place when it comes to dealing with China. India’s biggest diplomatic and geopolitical challenge lies in balancing its continental integration with Eurasia in the form of the Russia-China-India (RIC) trilateral along with maritime interests in the Indopacific-focused US-Japan-India trilateral.Only with tactful diplomacy and a panoramic vision of its interest in maritime and continental Asia, can India successfully transform into a “leading power” from a balancing power.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.