Last week, The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center hosted a very timely discussion on the prospects for U.S.–Australia–India Trilateral Cooperation featuring Graham Fletcher, the deputy chief of mission at the Australian embassy in Washington, D.C.; Sunjoy Joshi, the director of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), an Indian think tank; Heritage’s own Walter Lohman, director of its Asian Studies Center; and Heritage senior research fellow for South Asia Lisa Curtis.
This event follows the recent release of “Shared Goals, Converging Interests: A Plan for U.S.–Australia–India Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” a joint report by scholars from The Heritage Foundation, the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia, and India’s ORF. The report calls for increased trilateral cooperation across a breadth of issues, including maritime security, counterterrorism, and nonproliferation.
After President Obama’s swing through the Pacific, where he emphasized a strategic “pivot” toward Asia, sought to reinvigorate the U.S.–Australia alliance by announcing a rotation of up to 2,500 Marines through northern Australia, and engaged regional leaders in various summits during a whirlwind nine-day trip, the panel sought to highlight the numerous opportunities and challenges that increased U.S.–Australia–India cooperation presented.
The panel was generally optimistic about the benefits of trilateral cooperation. Although he dismissed the prospects of success in Canberra for any diplomatic forum targeted at China, Fletcher remarked that Australia is “open-minded” and “quite happy to look at new arrangements between several countries.” He praised U.S.–Australia relations but also noted that Australia–India relations have historically been neglected and “underdone” and that the reversal of Australia’s ban on uranium sales to India is a key step toward improving relations.
Joshi continued the momentum by exacerbating the centrality of the word converging in the report and went on to declare that the trilateral is “an idea whose time has arrived.” To Joshi, 21st-century challenges demand far more inclusive responses than the old systems of relations allowed, and sharing expertise across several issues—such as securing global commons, food security, and technology—will be tremendously beneficial to all involved.
Curtis, one of the report’s co-authors, described trilateral cooperation in a single word: synchronicity. She added that recent events across the Asia-Pacific have made the trilateral project “more timely and more relevant than we could have imagined a year ago” when the study was birthed in discussions between scholars at ORF and The Heritage Foundation. She focused specifically on the benefits of enhancing mutual trust and understanding in maritime security, counterterrorism, and nonproliferation.
Yet Graham also highlighted that we must examine what added benefits trilateral dialogues can provide over normal bilateral meetings. He mentioned that a trilateral dialogue faces numerous challenges, not the least of which is simple time management—government officials can attend only so many meetings in a day, and his fear was that trilateral meetings would be sacrificed to bilateral ones and that interests may not necessarily overlap across the board.
Lohman, another co-author, attempted to temper expectations by highlighting that the report discusses “converging interests [and] intersecting interests, not identical interests” and that parties can come to the table from different perspectives and find areas of joint cooperation, as “that is the purpose of a dialogue.” Regarding time management, cooperation can exist across several ranks of government officials, not solely at the ministerial level.
Some commentators have highlighted that the proposed trilateral is an “anti-China axis,” and its purpose is to contain China. Lohman roundly dismissed this critique in stating that “we’re talking about a dialogue after all, we’re not talking about a security pact, and certainly none of us are talking about containing China.… The dialogue should include discussion of Chinese power and intentions, but it’s not only about that.”
Joshi noted that this partnership would diminish great power misperceptions and indeed increase security, and Curtis stated that “if China is also interested in regional security,” then it should have no reason to object, as “there is nothing alarming here.”
The event concluded with the notion that the trilateral’s modesty can become its greatest strength. After all, creating a trilateral dialogue casts a wide net for future cooperation across several areas that would benefit not only the triad of partners but other regional actors as well.
Indeed, it was the U.S.-led hub-and-spokes alliance system that maintained peace and security throughout the Asia-Pacific since World War II, creating the system necessary for unimpeded economic development across the region. Yet to guarantee another six decades of peaceful development, new groupings must be created to tackle 21st-century issues and supplement existing alliance structures. As this event highlighted, a U.S.–India–Australia trilateral dialogue can do just that.