The 21st century has been dubbed as Asia’s century. But Asia is fraught with many territorial and maritime disputes, claims and counter-claims which has rendered the region as the new hotbed of military activities. Japan-China relations have worsened since Japan nationalised the Senkaku/Diaoyou Islands in 2012 and China marked its new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in 2013 in the East China Sea. The Philippines dragged China to the UNCLOS in 2017 regarding the dispute over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Vietnam has a long-standing dispute with China regarding the Paracel Islands. India and China have territorial disputes in the Himalayas and the border standoff between the two in 2017 in Bhutan’s Doklam almost turned ugly. Interestingly, it is China’s assertive behavior and actions which is the common thread in almost all of the disputes and contestations in Asia today. The ‘China factor’ has given rise to new geopolitical realities in Asia. But none of the countries are willing, or more importantly, strong enough to stand up to China individually as no one has either the deep pockets or military might in the region as China does. In this backdrop, the rise of India has given birth to a new ray of hope among many countries in Asia. There is an increasing clamor for India to rise as a regional counter-weight to China so as to maintain the balance of power. Even the US has long wanted India to play a larger role in the Indo-Pacific commensurate with its military might to check Chinese assertiveness. Along with India, two other nations which are wary of Chinese aggressiveness in the region are Japan and Vietnam. India has over the years deepened its strategic and defense relationships with both Japan and Vietnam. Both Japan and Vietnam desire India to play a larger role in the region. Japan maybe the only country towards which the Indian strategic community has absolute trust. India has invited Japan as the only country for investments and development of its highly sensitive north-east region and the strategically located Andaman Islands. The two nations opened the ‘India-Japan Coordination Forum on the Development of North-East’ in August, 2017. Indian Prime Minister’s thrust on “Act East Policy” and Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” find convergence in India’s North-East and South-East Asia.
Along with Japan, Modi government’s ‘Act East Policy’ identifies Vietnam as a very important partner. In this context, India-Japan-Vietnam relations assume great significance. The Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Hanoi on August 25th, 2018 as part of her two-nation tour to Vietnam and Cambodia aiming to deepen India’s strategic cooperation with the two key countries of ASEAN. Swaraj’s visit to Vietnam assumes great significance as the two sides are looking to strengthen their bilateral strategic and defense partnership in the wake of China expanding its footprints in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea region. India officially opposes Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) Project.
Currently, India is officially involved in two trilateral frameworks, viz. India-Japan-USA and India-Japan-Australia. The question arises as to why then India, Japan and Vietnam? The reasons are many. Firstly, all these three countries face a direct threat from Chinese assertiveness and have much in common when it comes to their views on regional security. For the three nations, Maritime commerce is very important as bulk of their foreign trade is sea-borne. Hence, they want to secure the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) through naval cooperation. Secondly, all the three countries have fought wars with China previously and thus have an appetite to thwart the Chinese challenge and maintain a free and prosperous Indo-Pacific. Third, both Japan and Vietnam see India as a strategic alternative to counterbalance China in the region as India is the only country in Asia with an economy, geographical size and military capabilities that can compete with China.
India, Japan and Vietnam share common concerns and strategic convergences which have resulted in the forging of strong bilateral strategic partnerships amongst them. All of them are strategically located nations and it is in their best interests to convert these bilateral partnerships into a Strategic Trilateral. Another important factor which can propel the three countries towards further cooperation is the US factor. India-US Strategic relations have now taken the shape of a “2+2 Dialogue” as both US Secretary of State James Mattis and Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo visited India on September 6th, 2018. The two nations signed a “communications, compatibility and security arrangement” (COMCOSA) which binds then towards deeper defense and security cooperation. For Japan, the US remains as the single most important country and defense partner and will continue to be so in the long run. Even Vietnam is being courted by the US today as the long-standing arms embargo was lifted by the Obama government in 2016.
The scope of cooperation between India, Japan and Vietnam is huge. They enjoy strong bilateral relationships between each other as well. They are three like-minded nations and share similar views when it comes to regional security, and all have disputes with China. As such, for them the need of the hour is to forge a strategic trilateral to challenge Chinese assertiveness. Asian security architecture calls for a such a trilateral to cater to Asian security needs and resolve conflicts. Although the ‘China Factor’ is a major reason for the three countries to come together, the aim and objective of such a grouping need not only be China-centric. The ‘Trilateral’ can ensure an overall peaceful Indo-Pacific which shall be ready to face any security challenges in the region. An India-Japan-Vietnam trilateral partnership can emerge as an alternative security bloc in Asia and all the nations can rally around them to contribute to Asian peace and prosperity. There is also huge potential of maritime cooperation between the three nations as majority of their trade is sea-borne. Their navies can together ensure security of all essential SLOCs by checking piracy so that trade and commerce can further prosper in the region. Both Japan and Vietnam desire India to step up its role in the region commensurate with its capabilities and check Chinese aggression. India is the biggest naval power in the Indian Ocean Region, through which trillions of dollars of trade takes place each year. Also, India’s support to Japan and Vietnam in their respective maritime disputes with China will be much valued by both the nations.
In my opinion, India-Japan relations, with a definite US role – both at the forefront and in the background, is Asia’s ‘win-win’ relationship of the 21st century. Perhaps with a nation like Vietnam enhancing its strategic and defense cooperation with both the nations, there could surely be an alternative power bloc in Asia which can checkmate Chinese aggression and assertiveness and maintain a peaceful regional order, sans the Chinese hegemonic tendencies.
(Amlan Dutta is a researcher at Centre for Vietnam Studies, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)