Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended two separate trilateral summit meetings in quick succession on the side-lines of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, underlining India's diplomatic efforts to position itself as a key player in the evolving international order, staying away from the pitfalls of strategic alliances caused by rivalry among leading powers.
The first was a three-way summit between Modi and the Chinese and Russian presidents. This was followed by another featuring the Indian prime minister, his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe and US President Donald Trump.
The Modi-Putin-Xi meeting was the second instance of such a trilateral meeting and it took place after a gap of 12 years. But more interest centred on the Modi-Trump-Abe meeting as it was the first time that the top leaders of the three countries met in the trilateral format. Prior to this, trilateral meetings between the three countries had remained confined to involving only their senior officials.
Over the last three decades, India ramped up its economic and defensive ties with the US and Russia, shedding what Modi described as “hesitations of history” which saw New Delhi avoiding such course in the name of non-alignment during the time of the Cold War.
Modi termed the trilateral meeting with Trump and Abe as “historic” and once again went public with his love for coining acronyms. He said the coming together of Japan, America, India becomes “JAI” which means success. He has reasons to do so. First, Modi pointed to the main pillar of the meeting—shared democratic values. Second, which flows from the main pillar, he cited as the commonalities between India, Japan and America in aiming to keep “free, open, inclusive and rule-based order” for prosperity and peace of the huge geographical region stretching across the maritime boundaries of Asia. Third, the Indian Prime Minister laid out the contours bringing the three countries together: i) Maritime security; ii) Unfettered mobility along the oceans and seas; iii) Building connectivity; iv) Sustainable development and; v) Disaster relief.
While some may view this three-way group as being set against China, both Japan and India, who have territorial disputes with China, have always focused more on economics when it comes to their relationship with the US. Another thing to remember is that all three countries have robust economic and trade ties with China which effectively works as a bulwark against any military face-off—even when other factors are not considered.
Earlier in June, Modi articulated his vision of the Indo-Pacific at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, making it clear that India does not see the region as a theatre of strategic power-play. In his words, Modi left no doubts that he wants the Indo-Pacific as a hub of development and investment.
There is no doubt, that defence cooperation between India and the US and India and Japan have gathered considerable strength in the last five years. But given the asymmetry between China's economic and military power compared to that of India and Japan, it makes sense for both New Delhi and Tokyo to focus just on the economic dimension of their relationship. After the trilateral meetings and a quadrilateral meeting which included Australia, India was careful to dismiss the perception about any move to gang up against China. The US, for its part, should think hard before seeing India or Japan, or any other country, as a military counter-weight against China. India and Japan have separately reached out to China. Modi and Xi have met several times over the last few years to keep up the momentum at the summit level. Washington too has expressed a desire to work with China if the latter, in its view, plays by the rules relating to trade and currency.
The economic relations between India and Japan and India and the US have strengthened remarkably over the last two decades. The US has emerged as India's biggest trade partner with trade in goods and services touching USD 127 billion, thus becoming the most important source of investment. Japan has invested heavily in India's industrial and rail corridors, bullet-train project and road connectivity projects in the north eastern part of India which will act as a big boost to India's outreach to South East Asia. During Modi's visit to Japan in October this year, India and Japan agreed to explore collaborative projects in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and African countries in competition with China's Belt and Road Initiative. As India aims at a USD 6 trillion economy in the next decade or so, an environment free from hostilities is needed. The US too stands to benefit from it by joining in the enhancing of infrastructure capability of developing countries.
If there is a meeting ground between the US, Japan and India as key democracies, one cannot be oblivious of the fact that there are also differences among them. India and Japan, along with China, are among those at the receiving end of Trump's unsettling trade (tariff) war. Besides, India and Japan are also concerned about the impact the US sanctions on Iran will have on their energy security. Overall, the trilateral meeting has as much to celebrate together as had work to do to polish off the rough edges among them. At the end of the day, more important than meetings—whether bilateral, trilateral or quadrilateral—is to judge if they contribute to a stable rule-based multipolar world order.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent at The Daily Star.