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Global power axis
Yet another trilateral grouping has emerged along with  India, US, Japan and US, Japan and Australia. The latest and third  trilateral comprising India, Japan and Australia are part of the same quadrilateral India, US, Japan and Australia, which prematurely died in the womb in 2007.

The four countries had earlier conducted a joint maritime exercise  in the Bay of Bengal called the Malabar in September 2007 in which Singapore was the fifth partner. Now this year India, US and Japan trilateral will  together once again be seen in action  in the joint maritime exercise in September 2015. Ignoring Chinese sensitivities India has invited Japanese  Navy also  to join in the bilateral Malabar exercises, after initial hesitation.

In 2007 the four  big powers had somersaulted as the Chinese dragon roared. However, a few years later US persuaded India to join Japan in the  trilateral dialogue forum, which has now been institutionalized as they  meet regularly. The India, Japan and US trilateral was considered as an anti-Chinese grouping  and the  officials of India, Japan and Australia denied the media assertions that another anti-China grouping  has emerged. The new trilateral met for the first time in New Delhi in June 2015 and discussed burning regional and international security issues, which included the South China Sea. All the members of defunct quadrilateral have expressed reservations  on the aggressive designs of China,  especially in the South China Sea.

Security situation in SCS

The foreign secretary level talks of the three nations India, Japan and Australia were held in New Delhi in June in the backdrop of the Chinese advances in the South China Sea. The three countries were represented by  Dr S Jaishankar, Secretary, MEA, India , Japanese Vice foreign minister Akitaka Saiki  and Australian Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Varghese. China’s creation of an artificial island in the South China Sea has drawn the attention of all concerned countries, as this will expand the Chinese claims of maritime boundary in the South China Sea. Talking of the trilateral meet the Japanese Vice Foreign minister Akitaka said that India, Japan and Australia are  on the same page over “aggressive China”. The issue was discussed at length during the trilateral meeting.

Maritime security was on the agenda which included the freedom of navigation in the high seas. Saiki confirmed that whole day of the talk was focused on China. Very interestingly, the three countries did not issue any joint statement. But the Japanese Minister Akitaka spoke openly about the deliberations of the trilateral meet, whereas the Australian Foreign Secretary Varghese clarified that the trilateral meeting should not be considered as anti-China front. He said “This is not a meeting directed at anyone. We are three countries with a lot to do bilaterally, and we see benefit in cooperation,”

However, Japan which feels threatened by China, in the post cold war era, and trying to shed its  pacifism now is part of the three separate trilateral along with India, USA and Australia. These trilaterals discuss international issues including the security situation in the South China Sea. So, when the third trilateral was constituted  it naturally raised  hackles in Chinese strategic circles, though there was no official comment on the trilateral meet.

The three  trilateral groupings appear to have same agenda. All three  appears to be concerned on the evolving security situation in the South China Sea. Members of the three  trilaterals have  same mindset towards China. Between the two trilateral India and  Japan are common. Though the US, Japan and Australia trilateral grouping is also operational since 2002. So among the three trilaterals, Japan is  common in all the three   and other two are members of other three trilaterals.

So, the question arises, why  not the four countries dare to  come together again and dissolve the three trilaterals, since all the four are the members of one of the three trilaterals and discuss the same issues. Diplomatic sources  are of the opinion that US, Japan and Australia trilateral have more aggressive stance towards China than the other two tri-laterals, of which India is a part.

The quadrilateral proposal emerged in 2007 when India organized a five nation  multilateral  Malabar  naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal comprising India, US, Japan, Australia and Singapore. Except Singapore,  officials of the rest of the four nations  gathered in Tokyo and announced the intentions of forming a quadrilateral alliance. China took serious note of this and issued demarche to all. After this Australia and India developed cold feet and the idea died even before birth. Now,  interestingly, three of the  four  nations of the supposed quadrilateral form part of the three separate trilaterals.

Naval exercises

However  India, Japan and Australia plans to conduct trilateral naval exercises, though Indian government has  given a belated  go ahead for the India, Japan and US joint naval exercises in the name of Malabar, which India and US have been conducting  bilaterally since 1992. Though doors are opened later  for Japan to be included in the proposed Malabar exercises to be held in September this year. Considering India’s evolving relations with China,  India fears that decision to invite Japan in the bilateral India-US Malabar will antagonize China. However, India and Japan are already engaged in bilateral maritime exercises. As far as India, Japan, Australia are concerned, preliminary talks are reported to have been held between the three naval officials. Indian naval officials have already visited Perth, Australia. The conduct of joint three nation naval exercises projects a different picture of coming together of three likeminded nations and forming a kind of axis.

Though the other members of trilaterals are primarily concerned about China making advances in South and East China Sea, India aims to keep China away from Indian Ocean and seek the cooperation of other members of trilaterals to neutralize Chinese presence in Indian Ocean.

The Chief of New Zealand navy Rear Admiral Jack Raymond Steer, who visited India in mid June expressed his reservations  on Chinese designs while talking to a news agency. While welcoming US rebalancing of its naval assets to  the  Asia pacific region, the Admiral  said  about China, “ the Chinese will always say one thing and other people will have different view. The fact that China has been contributing for many years to the anti-piracy group is a good thing because the more nations contribute, the better it is. However when asked about Chinese deployments of submarines and other ships in the Indian Ocean he said, “one view could be that China is trying to teach themselves, trying to make sure that they can actually do this because for a long time, they have not gone very far away from mainland China but what is the actual underline thinking I do not know.”

The trilaterals seem to be emerging construct against the rise of China, but they try to assure the international community, especially China  that they do not have any such intention. Japan and Australia are the two US allies and for India to become a partner in two trilateral alliances along with them, will project India as getting strategically closer to the US and its allies. Japan and Australia are discussing how to deepen military cooperation. India and Australia will very soon conduct a joint maritime exercise. And  Japan is also joining US- Australia naval war games for the first time. Japan and Australia were not great security partners earlier but new equation seems to be emerging. India and the US are also going to hold advanced naval Malabar exercises in September. There is a possibility of last minute inclusion of Japan also. Thus the three members of the three trilaterals out of four countries who are on same page on China will gradually take shape depending on China’s increasing assertive behavior.