December 08, 2011

New Tripartite Forum to Discuss Issues in Asia Pacific

Listen to the interview on ABC Radio Australia here.

A new forum has been announced embracing the US, India and Japan.

The US State Department says the three-nation dialogue is an opportunity to discuss a range of Asia Pacific regional issues. 

The meeting on December 19 will be attended by senior diplomats of the three countries and comes on the back a regional tour by President Barack Obama that stressed US interests in the region. 

Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Richard Fontaine, senior adviser at the Centre for a New American Security

FONTAINE: It's unclear how often they're going to meet, the first meeting will be at the assistant secretary level, so kind of the mid-level, below the Secretary of State or the minister level here in Washington DC on December 19th. They are pains, all three sides, to say that they're going to talk about more than China, they're going to talk about energy and defence and maritime cooperation and all sorts of other things. But certainly China will be the backdrop for many of the discussions.

LAM: Well Japan has long figured large in US strategic interests in the region, particularly North Asia. But now India, can you tell us why?

FONTAINE: India and the United States had a long, fraught relationship throughout the entire Cold War, and then really starting about ten years ago both sides made a concerted effort to try to beef up their ties. And this has in the last couple of years shown some real fruit as the US and India have tried to work out a strategic agreement for the way forward between each other, and including joint military exercises, various forms of exchanges, increased trade and so forth. And India is now doing the same thing with Japan. They're negotiating a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, the Japanese Prime Minister will be visiting India at the end of December, and so forth. So in a way a lot of this is coming together and a meeting like this seems to make some sense.

LAM: And is it also partly because the US wants to broaden its reach in Asia, to move westwards if you like?

FONTAINE: Yes absolutely, you increasingly hear American officials and individuals in Washington who think about these things talk less about East Asia and more about the Indo-Pacific region to try to get hold of the idea that this is one region that connects the Indian Ocean, including India, Sri Lanka and countries there, all the way through from the north Japan and Korea down to Australia and New Zealand in the south. And to try to see this region as one more integrated whole when it comes to certainly US strategy. Also we look at China and see the reach of China, which is well beyond its traditional waters now. Chinese certainly have great interests in the Indian Ocean, a vast majority of their oil and gas comes through the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea from the Middle East. But they've also tried to place little diplomatic security side bets. Some of us refer to this as the string of pearls, which I think is somewhat of an overblown concept, but this idea that China has increased its strategic ties with Sri Lanka, with Pakistan, with Burma, with Nepal and other places in South Asia, and notably not with India.

LAM: And Richard do you think that India and Japan themselves might have their own concerns about China's economic rise and its use of economic strength to beef up its assertiveness in the region?

FONTAINE: They do and they want at root what the United States wants and also what many countries in Asia want, which is good ties with China, particularly good economic ties because all of our economies are at least in part dependent on good economic ties with China, but they want to hedge their bets against the possibility that something will go wrong and that China's rise won't be as peaceful as we all hope. And so they are placing little side bets as they hedge, and so you see them beefing up ties with each other and also with other countries in the region. So Japan has just signed a maritime security cooperation agreement with the Philippines of all places. India is talking to Indonesia and Australia, and Vietnam and the United States are talking to everyone.

LAM: Well you mentioned Australia, there's also talk of a three-way security pact made up of the US, India and Australia. What does Australia add to the mix do you think?

FONTAINE: Well the first thing I would say and we have to be careful when we talk about what exactly these kinds of arrangements are, this US-Japan-India one is not much more than a meeting at middle level of officials, it certainly isn't a security pact. And the idea that there would be a US-India security pact or US-Australia-India security pact, I would just say, don't hold your breath. The Indians and the United States won't be in an alliance anytime soon. Short of that however, all kinds of things are possible. And when it comes to defence cooperation, when it comes to the exchange of military officials, joint exercises, energy consultations, all of those kinds of things, those are very much on the table, and Australia I think will end up playing a key role in all of these different kinds of discussions in the future.

LAM: And finally Richard, the US and indeed American foreign policy advisers have repeatedly denied that there is a China containment policy. But forums such as this, tripartite meeting, aren't they also aimed at counterbalancing China's growing influence in the region? Isn't China the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about?

FONTAINE: China's the elephant in the room that everyone will talk about but will talk about it quietly and they'll do so more or less in private. Publicly everyone will be at pains to say that this is about more than China, and it is about more than China. But China is the strategic backdrop and the strategic driver for many of these arrangements. It's not that China's creating a containment activity by all of the countries, that we're spurring together some group of countries that's going to contain China. It's more these countries that are getting together to strengthen their ties to one another, hedging against the possibility that something goes wrong sometime in the future. And while they're doing that, they're on their own trying to have good ties with China. And so it's a little bit more complicated than a traditional containment strategy.