Of trilaterals....

The India-Japan-US trilateral grouping will begin work on a five-point agenda as the three powers devise security structures for the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region. Although the first summit by PM Modi, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and US President Donald Trump, who met in Argentina, seemed like a last-minute thing, top sources here said the trilateral summit was planned weeks ahead, and it was a deliberate decision to avoid the announcement until the very end.

To balance things out, India pushed for a revival of the Russia-India-China summit, where Modi, Putin and Xi met without an agenda but a deep conversation.

Nevertheless, the JAI grouping is shaping up to be a core group in Indian foreign policy, despite the fact that India is probably the most cautious member of the related Quadrilateral grouping.

During the summit, India proposed five steps that the group could take in the immediate future. Among them is introduction of a rules-based system for all countries to ensure free movement of trade and energy — two important components for developing countries like India and those in the Asean region.

This includes everything from freedom of navigation to multilateral trading rules, sources said. As the Indo-Pacific concept is introduced in this region to be a counter to an expansionist China, India proposed the three countries synergise their infrastructure and related projects in the countries. This is something India and Japan have begun working on, particularly in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The US said its BUILD Act has opened the doors for US private sector to cooperate in such projects in third countries. The important difference here is in “synergy” rather than joint projects, which run into their own challenges.

But for all these to take off, its crucial to engage all stakeholders, PM Modi said. That would mean both making the Asean central to the Indo-Pacific strategy, and also explain its benefits to these countries. The Indo-Pacific is regarded with some suspicion in Asean region, and fuelled by Chinese diplomacy, which describes it as an “exclusive” club. On the other side, China’s BRI is creating unwilling dependencies, and there is a growing pushback against this project.

The trilateral countries believe they have a better narrative, using transparency and sustainability as key attributes of the Indo-Pacific policy. Most of the Asean countries are wary of China anyway, but are equally wary of this other grouping. India and Japan in many ways soften the trilateral.

The last action point put out includes a strategy for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, that the three countries can cooperate on and execute in the region.

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