Trilateral Diplomacy: Foundations in an Australian Indo-Pacific Strategy

27 Mar 2018
Trilateral Diplomacy: Foundations in an Australian Indo-Pacific Strategy
As Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper 2017 contends, active and confident diplomacy is the driver of an outward-looking nation that is fully engaged with the world.  As the global centre of gravity shifts to the Indo-Pacific, an increasingly contested region, Australia must intensify its efforts to support regional security and prosperity.  Converging economic and strategic power in the Indo-Pacific is bringing Australia closer together with its regional partners, including Indonesia, India and Japan, with whom a range of common interests are shared.  At a time of relative uncertainty about United States’ willingness to invest strategic capital in the region beyond the Korean Peninsula, Australia has an important role to play with its partners in advocating for an ongoing US Indo-Pacific commitment.'

For a multitude of economic and security purposes, Australia will greatly benefit from closer strategic ties with Indonesia, India and Japan. 

In this context, there are real opportunities for Australia to deepen its diplomatic relationships with key regional partners.  For a multitude of economic and security purposes, Australia will greatly benefit from closer strategic ties with Indonesia, India and Japan.   As a greater number of regional governments accumulate capacity for power projection, such engagement will help manage the risks of strategic miscalculation and instability.  So, in this period of disruption, what practical initiatives can Australia undertake to advance such an active and confident diplomacy?  One option is the establishment and/or upgrading of formal trilateral arrangements, particularly with the three aforementioned Indo-Pacific powers.
Australia’s approach to Indo-Pacific security is supported by its Trilateral Security Dialogue with the US and Japan, an institution established in 2006 based on mutual strategic interests and shared values.  As Australia further engages Indonesia, India and Japan, there are opportunities to work with these nations in similar small groupings.  Whilst multilateral fora, such as East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, APEC and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) remain the premier forums for Australia’s Indo-Pacific diplomacy, formalised trilateral arrangements add another layer of engagement where cooperation on specific areas can be organised and accomplished.

Converging interests with Indonesia, India and Japan

Australia and Indonesia have developed a resilient relationship, where shared interests now rise above the frictions that can be attributable to close geographic proximity.  The 2006 Lombok Treaty, and the later Joint Understanding on its implementation, affirms the two countries’ commitment to common partnership.  Australia and Indonesia now collaborate in regional dialogues as: Co-Chairs of the Bali Process, Co-Chairs of the inaugural 2017 Sub-Regional Meeting on Foreign Terrorist Fighters and Cross Border Terrorism; and sequential Chairs of the rejuvenated IORA. Australia recognises how important Indonesia is to the fabric of its foreign relations, and as a statement of intent its diplomatic mission presence has doubled in the last few years with the establishment of consulates in the economic growth cities of Makassar and Surabaya.
Australia and India, strategic partners since 2009, are finding further synergies between India’s “Act East” Policy and Australia’s vision for an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific.  The two nations share frequent Leaders’ meetings, annual Foreign Ministers meetings and regular Defence and Trade Ministers meetings.  The 2+2 Foreign and Defence Secretary Dialogue, held in New Delhi in December 2017, was the first of its kind between the two nations.  India’s foreign policy is starting to reflect its enormous size, capacity and desire for a regional leadership role.  As this occurs, deepening institutional of linkages between the two nations will be of immense benefit to Australia’s economic, cultural and strategic interests.
Australia and Japan, ‘Special Strategic Partners’ since 2014, are both committed to the Indo-Pacific regional construct and share a longstanding economic and investment relationship.  The two nations work actively to keep the US alert to strategic developments in the region and are successfully advancing regional integration efforts, including the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11).  In a recent interview with the Australian Financial Review, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared, “…I think we have the closest relations between Japan and Australia in the history of the two countries…”  As Prime Minister Abe works to amend Japan’s Constitution to enable a more active role for Japan’s Self-Defence Forces, and generally do more to support regional stability, Australia can work closer with Japan to engage other growing powers.

Opportunities for enhanced trilateral diplomacy

Indonesia, India and Japan all now share bilateral strategic partnership status with each other and, with Australia, are experiencing a convergence in interests and objectives in the Indo-Pacific.  Preserving the international rules-based order, promoting the territorial integrity of nations and ensuring open sea lines of communication are key goals of respective foreign policies.  Australia should lead the charge for closer cooperative engagement with these Indo-Pacific powers across the diplomatic spectrum, including in the trilateral domain.

Trilateral diplomacy can be a practical means to build the habits of dialogue, determine common objectives, secure agreement and enable action that may be more difficult to accomplish in larger multilateral environments.

Trilateral diplomacy can be a practical means to build the habits of dialogue, determine common objectives, secure agreement and enable action that may be more difficult to accomplish in larger multilateral environments.  For example, with the Indo-Pacific maritime theatre becoming a busier transit route and destination point, multi-party naval exercises are essential in building operational capacity and trust.  Trilateral diplomacy provides an innovative framework for such multi-party naval exercise agreements to be pursued.
Trilateral engagement for Australia should not be considered a superior or replacement form of diplomacy to bilateral engagement, or larger multilateral dialogues.  Engagement of this kind is simply another building block in an Australian Indo-Pacific Strategy that must be flexible in its form and integrated with other partners.  The opportunities for enhanced Australian trilateral cooperation with Indonesia, India and Japan include:
  • Australia, Indonesia and India: The first Indonesia-Australia-India Senior Officials’ Strategic Dialogue was held in Bogor, Indonesia, in late November 2017, to “discuss a shared vision for an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.”  The momentum from this meeting should be harnessed by moving towards a Secretary-level trilateral and, ultimately, to a Foreign and/or Defence Minister-level trilateral.
  • Australia, India and Japan: There have been four Secretary-level trilateral dialogues between Australia, India and Japan since 2015, the most recent held in New Delhi in December 2017.  These engagements should be elevated to a Ministerial-level trilateral dialogue, of equal stature as the Australia-US-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue.
  • Australia, Indonesia and Japan: As Indonesia and Japan celebrate their 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations in 2018, Australia should explore options to leverage this for an institutionalised trilateral relationship.  This engagement could start at the Officials-level, focusing on shared interests on issues as diverse as infrastructure investment, energy security and maritime cooperation.  Successful rounds of trilateral discussion at the Officials-level should work towards Secretary-level engagement and possibly Ministerial-level meetings.

Enhanced Trilateral Diplomacy in the Context of Australia’s Foreign Policy

Deepening ties with Indonesia, India and Japan is a strategic and economic imperative for Australia, and the convergence of interests between these Indo-Pacific partners is creating opportunities for deeper coordination.  Importantly, deeper engagement with Indonesia, India and Japan is not a “More Asia, Less US” approach for Australian foreign policy.  Rather, Australia’s alliance relationship with the US provides strategic clout and augments the development of these relationships.  Neither does such a foreign policy objective represent any rebuke of the need for closer engagement with China.  Indeed, in the trilateral space, Australia, the US and China can build on their annual Exercise Kowari and work to explore other trilateral endeavours.   Enhancing trilateral arrangements with key strategic partners is but one foundation in an integrated Australian Indo-Pacific Strategy, and actively pursuing such initiatives is one practical way Australia can deepen relationships and remain embedded in our changing region.

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Hugo Seymour
Hugo Seymour
Research Officer
Hugo Seymour is the Research Officer at the Perth USAsia Centre. He develops content and publishes on Western Australia and Australia's engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.
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