Shaping a Strategic Triangle with Japan and India: Crafting a Way Ahead


2015-02-13 Ian Armstrong

Temple University Department of Political Science

Roughly five years since the Obama Administration initiated the U.S. “pivot” to Asia, the circumstances have aligned themselves to make for significant headway in the region.

In light of recent events, there is an opportunity to strengthen the bilateral relations of two of the United States’ most crucial Pacific allies — Japan and India — in an attempt to not only counter growing assertiveness from Beijing, but to enhance significant economic relationships as well.

A favorable climate has emerged for the cultivation of a dynamic security alliance between New Delhi and Tokyo.

At the helm of both nations are alliance-inclined conservative nationalists — PM Narendra Modi of India on one hand, Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe on the other – and recent elections in both nations now all but guarantee simultaneous leadership stability for the next several years.

Furthermore, both nations have numerous shared interests across both security and economics, most notable of all the mutual concern of China’s burgeoning power and its gradually intensifying claims to regional hegemony.

Neither Modi nor Abe are reserved in their recognition of the potential that an Japan-India partnership embodies, with both PMs taking several preliminary steps in strengthening bilateral relations over the past year, among which being the elevation of diplomatic ties to the status of “Special Strategic and Global Partnership.”

More recently, this broadening relationship has culminated in a joint pledge to “strengthen the trilateral alliance with the United States,” an announcement put forth by the Japanese and Indian foreign ministers less than three weeks into 2015.

This strategic opening could serve as a timely invitation for the United States to fully assume an innovative role in the development of Japan-India relations, the bilateral link of the relationship that is admittedly the least developed.

A trilateral relationship is only as strong as its weakest bilateral partnership, and so the United States needs to focus on supporting a strengthened Indian-Japanese relationship as a foundation for shaping an innovative strategic triangular relationship appropriate to 21st century opportunities and threats.

With this goal in mind, the United States should move forward in a two-phase strategy, the first of which focuses on assisting India develop economically, and the second of which involves assimilating India into the already highly-developed institutions surrounding the U.S.-Japan security alliance.Focusing first on the economic aspects of the relationship serves three purposes.

For one, a U.S. focus on enhancing the development of the Indian economy aligns itself with the foremost goal of the early Modi Administration: growing a stronger and more dynamic industrial base. Modi and his government are less likely to commit to matters of international security before stabilizing the relatively fragile domestic economy.

A deepening of economic interdependence between states is also generally associated with an increased propensity for military and security cooperation.

Second, honing in on India’s economic status in the context of Japan-India relations is a less alarming yet equally as important first-step towards a more robust trilateral partnership in the eyes of an already suspicious Beijing.

Finally, an economically viable India provides a counterbalance to China in pursuing world markets.

A major forum through which the United States can shape a strategic approach to an evolving triangular relationship is the now annual trilateral meeting held between the three nations. Being both supportive of enhanced Japanese-Indian economic relationships and having policies that can mutually benefit all three is a key foundation to shaping a strategic triangle.

Additionally, reinvigorating the slowly-developing talks between Japan and India on civil nuclear cooperation is a specific economic domain within which this can be achieved. Many U.S. nuclear energy companies have close and complex business relationships with Japanese firms — GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, for instance — meaning that expansion into the Indian nuclear market would require civil nuclear agreements.

Accordingly, the United States must signal a desire for U.S.-Japanese nuclear firms to work together in the Indian market in an attempt to stimulate a Japan-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

Recent statements from both Tokyo and New Delhi suggesting “significant progress” are indicative of the increasing probability that an agreement is within reach, and the United States must seize the opportunity to accelerate this process. While stimulation of these discussions is a small step forward economically speaking, success in nuclear energy might result in the confidence needed for more substantial deepening of the Japan-India economic partnership, and thus a more stably developing Indian economy.

As the economic dynamics accelerate to shape a stronger tri-angular economic relationship, the question of an appropriate mix of security relationships can be considered in the evolving context.

The existing infrastructure provided by over a half-century of U.S.-Japan military partnership presents an excellent framework for strengthening Japan-India military ties and factoring India into more substantial trilateral relations.

As crucial powers in the Asia-Pacific, one of the most pressing security issues facing both Japan and India is a tense maritime climate with China. Thus, a reasonable starting point for the United States to begin strengthening Japan-India security relations can be found in the relatively low-cost measure of increasing maritime intelligence sharing.

For their part, the United States and Japan already have established an informal protocol of sharing maritime intelligence throughout their frequent military collaboration.

Factoring India into this informal intelligence sharing line is not only paramount in increasing U.S. capacity in Asia, but also in laying the foundation for a more effective, formalized system of intelligence sharing between the Washington, Tokyo, and New Delhi.

In doing so, the reckless behavior of North Korea as well as the strategic posturing of China can be better monitored. Furthermore, trilateral responses from the United States, Japan, and India can be better and more quickly formulated.

The establishment of such a system would also allow for more serious protocols to be established in the event of a maritime crisis, further encouraging more successful crisis management efforts.

Beyond maritime intelligence sharing, Japan and India exhibit a complementary nature in terms of defense procurement.

As Abe’s Japan gradually works its way out of a legacy of isolationism and the stigmas associated with the Second World War, a virtually unparalleled technological capability provides the emerging Japanese defense industry with great potential, and no market appears more fitting than an Indian nation keen on equating military clout with economic strength.

As one of India’s top three military suppliers and a dominant force in arms exports, the United States must not only accommodate the growth of the Japanese defense industry, but also leverage its position within the trilateral framework to stimulate the Japan-India defense trade.

By pursuing the continued development of U.S.-Japan-India trilateral meetings as well as joint military exercises, a block by block approach can be shaped moving ahead.

The future of the partnership is about channeling shared economic development and shared strategic interests to both deal with mutual threats and counter-balance the global assertiveness of powers like China.

It is not designed to be anti-Beijing, instead simply  reinforcing the international norms to which the U.S., Japan and India adhere while at the same time setting a standard for  China to follow and comply.

The increasingly amicable and frequent nature of U.S.-Japan-India consultation and collaboration has served as the ultimate means through which a more effective and efficient relationship has emerged.

It is then within the best interests of the United States to work with India on appropriate military exercises, which draw upon the Japanese-US working relationship as well.

Of course, these measures should be taken with respect to the desires of both India and Japan to maintain a general autonomy from U.S. influence, with Washington proceeding cautiously as it has in the past.

A too assertive United States might effectively stall the warming trajectory of U.S.-Japan-India relations, sending signals to New Delhi and Tokyo that they are best left to bilateral-level discussions.

However, there clearly is an unprecedented opportunity in forging a strategically invaluable alliance in the Asia-Pacific with long-term benefits to all three powers.

Such a relationship would lay a powerful foundation for a real Asian pivot strategy.

Editor’s Note: The intelligence sharing suggested by the author can be facilitated through a common platform acquisition program which can be leveraged to shape the kind of collaborative operative intelligence necessary to the three nation’s maritime and air forces.

The P-8 is a platform being flown already by the US Navy and the Indian Navy with the deployment of the P-8 Japan having begun early last year.

The goal of the military and security side of the relationship could well captured in this concept of a way ahead for the USMC in the Pacific made last year in an interview with then MARFORPAC, Lt. General Robling:

These capabilities and others make perfect sense for Australia and the greater Asia Pacific’s collective security requirements.   In addition, other countries like Japan and Singapore can likewise contribute to this collective security because they too are buying the same types or similar military capabilities.

I like the term deterrence in depth because that’s exactly what it is. It’s not always about defense in depth.

It’s about deterring and influencing others behavior so they can contribute to the region’s stability, both economically and militarily, in an environment where everyone conforms to the rule of law and international norms.