India, Japan and Australia: Advancing Non-Traditional Trilateral Cooperation

01 Apr 2020
India, Japan and Australia: Advancing Non-Traditional Trilateral Cooperation
As the geostrategic environment in the Indo-Pacific evolves, the need for cooperation between India, Japan and Australia has never been more important. In this time of uncertainty, the three like-minded states should come together to help shape the regional architecture in accordance with their aligned strategic interests. Non-traditional security issues provide the perfect starting point for the three countries to foster such trilateral activity.
The current geostrategic environment in the region is tense, caused primarily by competition between the United States and China. China is becoming increasingly assertive in the South China Sea, and endeavours to increase its regional economic foothold through expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Furthermore, the COVID-19 outbreak has seen the great power competition between the two countries only intensify. As US commitment and capacity to shape the Indo-Pacific comes into question, it is increasingly important for India, Japan and Australia to act together to help uphold a rules-based order.
The trilateral relationship between India, Japan and Australia is institutionalised through a web of bilateral agreements and mechanisms. India and Japan have historically strong relationships in strategic, economic and cultural domains. The Australia-Japan partnership is one of Australia’s most mature and well-developed in Asia. India and Australia became strategic partners in 2009, and continue to develop the security partnership and encourage trade cooperation. The series of intersecting bilateral agreements between the three countries indicates the like-mindedness of the partners, and enables a deepening of the trilateral relationship.
While India, Japan and Australia all share a commitment to an open, inclusive, prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific, divergences in each country’s respective foreign policies can prevent more comprehensive strategic cooperation. Although differing Indo-Pacific strategies do complicate the ability to work together across traditional security issues, coordinated effort between the three states to support a rules-based regional order is not impossible.
The non-traditional security (NTS) issues confronting the Indo-Pacific provide a sound basis for a strengthened trilateral relationship. Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, are two pressing non-traditional security issues that will accommodate cooperation. Collaboration in these NTS issues is often low-risk, high-outcome and politically favourable, and can provide a testing ground for more substantive strategic cooperation.
Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR)

The Indo-Pacific is the world’s most disaster-prone region, and there is ample opportunity for states to cooperate and coordinate humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts. India, Japan and Australia are all committed to providing HADR to each other, as well as to neighbouring countries. For example, Japan recently dispatched two C-130 transport aircraft to assist the Australian Defence Force and firefighters in battling the country’s recent bushfires. This followed Australia’s assistance to Japan in the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. The Indian navy plays a regional role in humanitarian operations, regularly participating in HADR missions (such as evacuations) in South Africa, West Africa and the South China Sea. Japan and India have undertaken joint exercises focusing on HADR operations.
India, Japan Air Forces Hold First Joint Military Exercise
Image Credit: Boeing. India and Japan kicked off their first joint air exercise in northern India in early December.

Given this precedent, HADR is an area for sound cooperation and trilateral relationship development. Each of the three countries are already undertaking some form of HADR in the region, with ample opportunities to combine efforts and coordinate logistics. For example, the unfolding global COVID-19 pandemic demands a multilateral response, and there is potential for the three countries to combine scientific expertise and research capacity. Furthermore, the sharing of essential medical supplies is possible, as country’s recourses become exhausted at different stages of the pandemic. More broadly, the three countries can deepen their existing HADR efforts, such as by including Australia in the Japan-India exercise Shinyu Maitri.
IUU Fishing

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a significant challenge for the Indo-Pacific, and growing consumer food demand is contributing to its proliferation. This demand, coupled with weak fishing regulations in many states and a lack of information sharing facilitates, has allowed the largely unchecked expansion of regional IUU fishing. A third of regional catches are IUU.
Accounting for more than 2.5 million tonnes of fish per year, IUU fishing costs the region billions of dollars and has diverse ecological and criminal ramifications. Reducing IUU should be further prioritised on the regional security agenda, as it poses threats to food security, the livelihood of those who depend on legal fishing, exacerbates climate change, and threatens the sustainability of fisheries in the region.
The Pacific Ocean side of the region has established mechanisms in place to combat IUU fishing, while the Indian Ocean is the ‘wild west’ in comparison and is particularly vulnerable to exploitation. This is because not all regional states are party to agreements and mechanisms to combat IUU fishing, and enforcement within these existing mechanisms is patchy. Australia, India and Japan are all fisheries nations, and should work together within existing mechanisms to prioritise preventative monitoring, control and surveillance efforts.
Due to the trans-boundary nature of IUU fishing, the coordinated participation of a number of states is crucial to increase the efficacy of Indian Ocean IUU action. India, Japan and Australia all engaged in fisheries management through the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). Deeper cooperation between the three states on IUU could be low-cost, whilst generating significant outcomes. Areas for further partnership include:
  • Indian Ocean Tuna Commission: As the world’s top fisher and consumer of Bluefin Tuna, Japan emerges as a natural leader for fisheries management. Japan should lead the way within the Commission to implement information sharing and monitoring of fishing vessels, to aid the Commission in preventing illegally caught fish enter markets. Australia and India are also members of the IOTC and should support these efforts.
  • Indian Ocean Rim Association: India and Australia are both members of IORA, with Japan a dialogue partner. The three countries should continue to work together within this framework to implement the short and long-term goals of the IORA Action Plan 2017-2021.
  • Port State Measures Agreement: Japan and Australia are both parties to this legally binding UN agreement, that aids countries in developing their port security, including to counter IUU fishing. Japan and Australia should encourage India to become a party to this agreement.
  • Engaging Indonesia: IUU fishing has been framed as a national security threat by Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo, and the country’s development of an international FishFORCE Academy is advancing the nation’s IUU-countering efforts. As a fellow Indian Ocean power and member of IORA, Japan, India and Australia should collectively further engage Indonesia in its efforts.
The Quad

There has been some form of traditional strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region between India, Japan, Australia, along with the US pursuant to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). Importantly, the Quad has recently been revived after being dissolved in 2008. Notwithstanding enthusiasm by each member state to step up the “Quad 2.0”, cooperation between states at this stage has only involved ministerial-level meetings.
While the Quad was born in 2007, its origins stem from cooperation in the wake of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. India, Japan, Australia and US worked together to form the ‘tsunami core group’, in a coordinated effort to provide HADR to the region. Given this proven track record of successful cooperation in the NTS domain, the dialogue will increase its focus on addressing NTS issues further to traditional security challenges.
Given the US’ Indo-Pacific policy under President Trump is increasingly focused on competing with China militarily, it is unlikely the US will divert attention to further tackle NTS issues. There is an opportunity, however, for India, Japan and Australia to work together in this domain to buttress regional cooperation in the face of US marginal declining predominance.
In his keynote speech at the Perth USAsia Centre’s Japan Symposium 2020, Japan’s Ambassador to Australia His Excellency Reiichiro Takahashi emphasised:
“Australia, India [and Japan] are like-minded nations… that share a desire to shape the future of the Indo-Pacific Region”
By expanding the non-traditional security agenda of the three countries, the Australia-India-Japan trilateral will ripen the trilateral relationship for future joint cooperation. This will ultimately support both further action in the traditional security domain and a more secure region.

The Perth USAsia Centre’s Japan Symposium Australia, Japan and India: Strengthening trilateral strategic relationships in the Indo-Pacific was held on the 17-18 February 2020 in Perth with support from the Consulate-General of Japan.



Gemma King
Gemma King
Research Officer
Gemma King is a Research Officer at the Perth USAsia Centre. She supports and contributes to the Centre’s research efforts through various programs and publications.
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