New Delhi: With an eye on China, India is set to partner Australia and Indonesia to create a minilateral grouping within the larger Indo-Pacific construct, ThePrint has learnt.
The move comes after New Delhi became an active member of a parallel supply chain network with Japan and Australia.
To set a “forward-looking agenda” for the group, the foreign ministers of these three countries — India’s S. Jaishankar, Australia’s Marise Payne and Indonesia’s Retno Marsudi — will be meeting later this month virtually, Indian diplomatic sources told ThePrint.
“The rise of China and its assertion of power within the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region and beyond have impacted all. This minilateral is certainly aimed at standing up against China by creating a network of security linkages with the countries of the region among like-minded countries,” said a diplomat of one of the countries that are part of the minilateral.
A brainchild of Indonesia, this group is being created with the objective of establishing a network of countries within the Indo-Pacific setup to push back against an increasingly belligerent China, thereby constructing an alternative military as well as an economic alliance, said the sources.
In a tweet last week, Marsudi said, “Good phone call with FM @MarisePayne of Australia. Discussed various issues including Covid-19 cooperation, upcoming Trilateral Foreign Ministers Meeting Indonesia – Australia and India; as well as 2+2 Indonesia – Australia meeting.”
Good phone call with FM @MarisePayne of Australia 🇦🇺(26/08).
Discussed various issues including Covid-19 cooperation, upcoming Trilateral Foreign Ministers Meeting Indonesia – Australia and India; as well as 2+2 Indonesia – Australia meeting. pic.twitter.com/IQ4GdZiNLg
— Menteri Luar Negeri Republik Indonesia (@Menlu_RI) August 26, 2020
‘Strengthen partnership against China’
Indonesia and India had first mooted the idea of a trilateral with Australia in 2013 under the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation. But it had failed to take off at the time.
“The real agenda of this minilateral is to strengthen a regional partnership against China. All those countries that are facing China’s aggression are now coming together. The China factor has become absolutely critical,” said Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagopalan, distinguished fellow and head (nuclear & space policy initiative), Observer Research Foundation.
“There are military capabilities within these countries, but time now is to also build a network of diplomatic capabilities that are targeted against China, because no matter how many Rafale fighters you may have, you need to have a direct and straightforward agenda against China,” said Rajagopalan.
She said India is now willing to be part of such minilateral groups that don’t have the US as New Delhi doesn’t want to be seen as an ally of Washington. “Of course, the US’ role in the Indo-Pacific is critical, without which there won’t be any dent. But minilaterals are also good, it’s better than having nothing at all,” she added.
These minilaterals are small groupings of like-minded countries that are forming their own alliances within the larger Indo-Pacific set-up.
Australia’s moves to corner China
After the Covid-19 outbreak, Australia has taken a lead in the creation of such minilaterals, amid its fast deteriorating relationship with China. It had also called for a probe into the origin of the novel coronavirus.
In July, Australia unveiled a new aggressive defence strategy keeping in mind the rising tensions between Canberra and Beijing. It raised its defence spending by 40 per cent in an unprecedented manner.
“The Indo-Pacific strategies of both India and Australia are increasingly focused around build a web of overlapping triangles. India, Indonesia and Australia are getting their officials together to discuss issues like maritime security in our contiguous geography,” said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University.
“When you think about it, India and Australia could work together to help Indonesia with an effective operating picture of the central sea lanes of the region… In fact, intensified collaboration among regional partners like Australia, India and Indonesia will complement the American alliance system and encourage the Americans to remain engaged, because the rest of us will be demonstrating our willingness to share regional security burdens,” said Medcalf.
India-Japan-Australia trilateral, Quad also gaining momentum
Another minilateral that is fast gaining momentum is the India-Japan-Australia group, which is creating an alternative supply chain with trade and investment linkages bypassing China.
On Tuesday, Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal held a video conference with his Australian and Japanese counterparts, Simon Birmingham and Kajiyama Hiroshi, respectively, to discuss the necessity of creating robust supply chain networks in the Indo-Pacific region.
In a joint communiqué, the nations said they have decided to “enhance the resiliency of supply chains in the Indo-Pacific region”, and create a “free, fair, inclusive, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment”, and “keeping their markets open”.
“The India-Japan-Australia geometry is based on a trusted strategic dialogue among the three countries that have been convening for several years,” said Medcalf, who is the author of Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won’t Map the Future.
“In time, all these new security triangles will involve expanding agendas of trust and practical cooperation — potentially extending into pandemic response, supply chains, technology, intelligence, and so on. We are at the beginning of an Indo-Pacific long game,” he added.
Meanwhile, the US is also pushing India, Japan and Australia to become more active within the Quad security dialogue that is gathering steam in an effort to contain China by “formalising” it.
On Monday, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said a ministerial meeting of the Quad is being planned in Delhi, which is likely to take place later this month or early October.
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