China, Japan, and India have plenty of geopolitical and economic space to continue to grow and work together. All of them have strong ties or regular working relationships with the US which is the only major power in both the Pacific as well as the Indian Oceans and the only superpower that exerts global influence. No other countries have shown the willingness and/or the capabilities to displace the US and its post-WWII Bretton Woods as well as Washington Consensus-based world order.
There is space for the three great Asian powers of China, India, and Japan, and the Pacific power of the US to work together on issues of common interest. Bilaterally, China is India’s largest trading partner in goods and India is a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and New Development Bank while all four powers have an interest in keeping sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) open.
The 2017 Malabar exercise is a sign of intensifying military collaboration between India, the US, and Japan which have deployed their largest and most powerful naval vessels (more than 15 of them) for the exercise. Before Exercise Malabar, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Geng Shuang announced that China did not object to “normal cooperation between countries” but hoped that “this kind of relationship and cooperation will not be directed against third country and that it will be conducive to the regional peace and security.” Vijay Sakhuja, the director of the National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi, tried to reassure China and others in the region that the US, Japan, and India were carrying out “a coordinated approach, to not contain, not even counter, just to be around in the Indian Ocean to just watch how the Chinese navy would be unfolding itself in the coming years.”
Standing against the realists who believe Japan, the US, and India should team up to hedge against other powers, including either a rising China or a China-Russian axis, are the idealistic Asianists who place faith in an Asian security architecture. The Asianists are a diverse group, consisting of those who are keen to have functionalist, constructivist, and/or cooperative ties between Asian powers, namely Japan-India-China, while other Asianists believe in the exclusion of the US, Australia, and the West from crafting Asia’s destiny. Siddharth Varadarajan, a reputable media personality and strategic thinker/commentator, argues that:
“India, Japan, South Korea and China, which have emerged as principal powers in Asia, should have multilateral and bilateral interactions with each other … without these four countries and Russia establishing a relationship of comfort among and between themselves, it will not be possible to develop the security architecture of Asia … in its interaction with Japan, the Indian side needs to encourage a constructive approach to Asian security based on addressing current concerns as well as the lingering burdens of history … The trilateral idea has two dimensions. At the military level, the United States would like to enhance the inter-operability of Asian forces loosely aligned with Washington. And at the political and strategic level, it would like to demonstrate that India, Japan, and the US will provide the nucleus around which any emerging security architecture in Asia must be built …”
Varadarajan is a typical example of an idealist Indian thinker who believes in the destiny of an Asian security architecture. His views resonate with the so-called “Non-Alignment 2.0” policy report put together by a group of Indian strategic thinkers, including a former Indian diplomat who also advised India to have a balanced foreign policy towards the US, China, other power centers, and regional arrangements.
Just as it is important to engage China on regional issues of importance, it is impossible to maintain the Pacific and Asian continental order without the participation of a global power like the US.
There is potential for Japan, the US, China, India, and other stakeholders to cooperate in issues of anti-human trafficking, environmental protection, anti-piracy, natural disaster recovery efforts, and anti-narcotics operations. Currently, Japan, China, and India operationalize anti-piracy efforts autonomously apart from each other, using naval ships to implement escort duties for civilian ships, rescue operations, and to tackle smugglers.
In April 2016, China dispatched its 20th naval escort task force to the Gulf of Aden while India has stopped 40 piracy incidents and set up an online service for merchants to request Indian naval escorts. The search and rescue operations for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 that crashed en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March 2014 involved 26 states including Japan, the US, China, and India; and, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, states including India, Japan, the US, and China (which donated USD 62.2 million in medical assistance, supplies, aid, etc.) all contributed to the efforts.
Sensing some anxious non-Chinese reactions to Chinese views of the regional naval order, Chinese President Xi Jinping warmly welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to a banquet dinner during the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, Fujian province, on September 4, 2017. He was elated at PM Modi’s attendance and laid praises on Modi and India in a highly diplomatic and optimistic speech that cited Modi’s administration for motivating a “development momentum of China-India relations” with cooperation in business, cultural exchanges, and regional institutions.
The US is also keen to intensify closeness and friendship with India and US President Donald Trump specifically wanted India’s help in building a politically-stable Afghanistan as he spoke to Americans on August 21 on US strategy and presence in Afghanistan which has lasted 16 years.
Any group that propounds the idea of an Asian-only club in the regional order is unrealistic and can lead to destabilization of the normative regional order. Just as it is important to engage China on regional issues of importance, it is impossible to maintain the Pacific and Asian continental order without the participation of a global power like the US. There are issues and common challenges in which all Asian powers can enlist the global strength and influence of the US for resolution. The US has also been a strong defender of interests for small- and medium-sized states in the regional order. These states form the quantitative majority of the regional order in terms of representation in the UN or regional organizations.
An Asian regional order without the participation of the US which is a major Pacific power as well as a global power will be weak and inward-looking. Currently, not even China wants to displace the US in the current world order that is still trying to find its equilibrium amongst the major powers seeking greater influence.
Albert, E. (May 19, 2016). Competition in the Indian Ocean. Council on Foreign Relations.
Bulloch, D. (September 7, 2017). China Tries to Make a Friend of India at BRICS Meeting, but is it Too Late? Forbes.
Khan, S. A. (n.d.). India-Japan Cooperation towards a Rule-Based Order in the Asia-Pacific: Mapping Indian and Japanese Strategic Thinking. The Japan Institute of International Affairs.
Pasricha, A. (July 10, 2017). With Eye on China, India, US and Japan Conduct Naval Drills. VOA.