December 05, 2011

U.S., India, Japan to meet after Obama's Asia "pivot"

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States, India and Japan will hold their first trilateral meeting this month as Washington pushes ahead with its "pivot" toward Asia, where China's growing power has raised concern.

The State Department said the three countries would meet in Washington on December 19, represented by senior diplomats.

"This meeting is going to be an opportunity to hold comprehensive discussion on a range of Asia-Pacific regional issues," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing.

"As the three leading Pacific democracies, we look forward to productive exchanges with India and Japan."

The meeting is the latest sign of the Obama administration's drive to push back against Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region and strengthen existing alliances.

President Barack Obama recently returned from an Asian tour that stressed U.S. interests in the region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week visited Myanmar, offering the prospect of improved ties with a resource-rich country that analysts said had been seen as an economic and political satellite of Beijing.

The United States has also sought to consolidate relations with other regional powers, including Australia and Indonesia, in what U.S. officials described as a policy "pivot" toward Asia as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.

Political analysts said that while the three countries share a range of interests including on trade and nuclear issues, the primary focus of this month's meeting was likely to be China.

"China is the big strategic driver of the interest of all three sides but this builds on trends that we've seen for some time now," said Richard Fontaine, a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security think-tank.

India and Japan both have their own concerns about China, which is leveraging its economic strength to become more assertive and beef up its military, including eventually developing its own aircraft carrier.

Those concerns have been particularly pronounced in the South China Sea, where the United States has urged China not to allow competing territorial claims to jeopardize the security of waterways essential to Asian trade.

U.S. officials have emphasized that their aim is not to threaten China, but Beijing has reacted nervously and warned Washington not to take steps which could fan Cold War-style antagonism.

The United States already has a strong security relationship with Japan, and has been working to develop similar ties with India, including forming a possible three-way security pact with New Delhi and Canberra.

Fontaine said the three-way meeting could fan fears of "encirclement" in Beijing, which is embarking on a delicate period of political transition as Chinese President Hu Jintao prepares to hand off power to Vice President Xi Jinping in early 2013.

"From the Chinese standpoint they would see this as not particularly worrisome in and of itself, but as the latest piece of a developing pattern of behavior in the Indo-Pacific region," Fontaine said.

(Reporting by Andrew Quinn; editing by Anthony Boadle)