While Washington grappled with the consequences of Kim Jong Il's death, the United States, Japan, and India held the first meeting of what is shaping up to be a robust trilateral dialogue -- but all sides have been quick to say that it's not aimed at isolating China.
The four-hour meeting was held at the State Department on Dec. 19, and the U.S. delegation was led by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Bob Blake. Other U.S. officials in attendance included State Department Policy Planning Director Jake Sullivan, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Affairs Peter Lavoy, and NSC Senior Director for Strategic PlanningDerek Chollet.
The Japanese contingent was led by Koji Tsuruoka, deputy vice minister for foreign policy, who was visiting Washington with Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba. The Indians flew in two officials, Joint Secretary for the Americas Jawed Ashraf and Joint Secretary for East Asia Gautam Bambawale.
Two State Department officials described the meeting for The Cable. "What I really loved about it was that it just seemed like a very natural conversation among friends," one of the officials said. "The amazing thing about our governments is that we really have shared values. That's the foundation of it all. That's the glue that binds us together."
The officials defined those shared values as democracy, human rights, rule of law, transparency, open markets, freedom of navigation, and an interest in international development work. "There wasn't a moment of dissonance in the whole thing," the official said. "The challenge now is to figure out what specifically we can focus on."
This was the first trilateral meeting between the three countries; the main objective of which was to set the foundation for future talks, discuss what issues would be on the agenda going forward, and set the goal of meeting again in Tokyo next year.
Topics that were discussed inside the meeting included Afghanistan, where Japan and India are large donors, the recent East Asia Summit, Central Asia, and Burma.
"We talked about how we can work together within all these Asian organizations to advance our shared values ... and what can do to help improve the workings of all these various fora," the State Department official said. "We agreed that we need to focus our collective efforts in Afghanistan to make sure all the values we share in Afghanistan are upheld and observed."
The U.S.-Japan-India trilateral dialogue is just the latest of the "mini-laterals" that the United States has undertaken recently. These groupings, which are smaller than often cumbersome multilateral groups, are becoming a preferred way for the United States to build consensus around policies with friends and allies.
There is another trilateral strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, and Australia that has been ongoing for five years, and now has half a dozen working groups. The United States and India have had a bilateral dialogue about East Asia for over two years now, led by Campbell and Blake. That dialogue has held four official meetings.
The State Department official said the United States is interested in setting up some "mini-lateral" structures that include China. U.S. policymakers also want to start a U.S.-India-China trilateral dialogue, the official said, but the Chinese won't sign on.
"Our Indian friends are happy to do it, we're willing to do it, but our Chinese friends are a little wary," the official said. The Japanese have also put forth the idea of a U.S.-Japan-China trilateral dialogue.
The State Department wants to be clear that this week's meetings were not about China. In fact, they said that the rise of China and how to deal with it wasn't discussed at the Dec. 19 trilateral meetings.
"We did talk about China, but it was in the context of other things," the official said. "We were actually looking for things we could do jointly with China."
Experts said that even if the trilateral dialogue wasn't about China, the fact that all three countries are cooperating in the effort to deal with China's rise looms over the discussions.
"The growing cooperation with India and Japan is driven by China's rise, there's no doubt about that. That doesn't mean it's directly aimed at China," said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). "They are all trying to respond to China's rise but not antagonizing China. From China's perspective, any cooperation is encirclement."
The initial Chinese reaction to the meeting was cautious. "U.S., Japan and India are countries with great influence in the Asia-Pacific region. We hope the trilateral meeting will be conducive to regional peace and stability," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters.
Countries like India are interested in deepening their ties with China as well as the United States, but joining U.S.-brokered diplomatic architectures allows India to approach its engagement with China from a position of greater strength, said Cronin.
He also said that the effort was part of the U.S. goal of increased burden sharing with India, to offset the financial cost of maintaining the U.S. presence in East Asia.
"The U.S. is not looking to spend a fortune, it's looking to be a facilitator," he said. "It brings India into East Asia and Japan into the Indian Ocean and it does that at a very low cost to the United States."
The State Department officials acknowledged that part of the driving force behind encouraging India to take on more responsibility was to shift some of the financial responsibility to countries whose economies are on the rise.
"The Indian government, for the first time in a long time, has money. It's a country that can greatly complement U.S. efforts in the region.... This theme of them being a net provider of security takes on more significance when all of a sudden they finally have the resources to expand their role," the official said.
"The whole world has been a free-rider on the United States for so long, if the Indians can help with that in an era when we face budgetary constraints, the more the better," the official said. "The U.S. has had the luxury in the past of going it alone, but it certainly makes sense to do it with your friends."