Indo-Pacific cooperation has emerged as the central theme of trilateral dialogues and the Quad

Indo-Pacific region continues to be the central theme of various multilateral dialogues of which India is an active participant. Though India, Japan, Australia and the US are especially deliberating over this issue under the quadrilateral format, the four partner countries besides France have formed three other trilateral groupings among themselves.

One of which comprising India, France and Australia, met on February 24 and discussed various measures to promote cooperation on strengthening maritime security.

It is significant that just ahead of the trilateral meeting, the four quadrilateral partners had met virtually at the level of Foreign Ministers on February 18, during which they extensively discussed the current situation in the Indo-Pacific region. India along with Australia and France further took up the issue and discussed cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

In the trilateral format India has been attending another forum of India, Australia and Japan, besides India, Japan and the US trilateral. India has also been participating in India, Russia and China trilateral meetings, held annually. Except the India-China-Russia trilateral, the earlier trilateral groupings are of like-minded partners.

Giving details of the latest trilateral senior officials meeting between India, France and Australia, the Indian External Affairs Ministry said the three sides took stock of the progress made on the outcomes of the Foreign Secretary level trilateral dialogue held in September, 2020.

The three sides deliberated on issues relating to maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, blue economy, protection of marine global commons, combating illegal unreported (IUU) fishing and cooperation in multilateral fora.

They also discussed the next steps to be taken for furthering trilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

Indo-Pacific cooperation has emerged as the central theme of other trilateral dialogues also, indicating the serious attention being focussed on the region, though, the India-China-Russia dialogue takes up the Indo-Pacific issue in different tones.

China and Russia see the emerging Indo-Pacific alliance as challenging their efforts to expand strategic influence not only over their neighbours, but around the globe too. India being the linchpin of the emerging construct of Indo-Pacific has special relevance for Indian strategic interests and planning. India, therefore, is intensively engaged with other Indo-Pacific partners.

Though the declared intent of these multilateral dialogues is safeguarding maritime and other politico-economic strategic interests, the dialogue partners of above quadrilateral and trilateral groupings have China factor in mind. The alleged mishandling of Corona pandemic by China and lack of transparency over its bio- research activities has further exacerbated the worldwide concerns over the real intent of the Chinese leaders.

Further, China has been flexing its muscle in and around the South China Sea. The way China has constructed artificial islands in the maritime region, speaks volumes of its expansionist designs. The-US led western powers can ignore this only at its peril.

In this backdrop, the Biden administration’s decision to continue to adhere to Trump’s Indo-pacific vision has been welcomed not only by the Indian strategic community but also Western powers and East Asian giants like Japan and South Korea.

The South East Asian power Indonesia has also aligned itself with the emerging Indo-pacific construct. The expanding idea of centrality of the Indo-Pacific in the world’s power games, with India as its principal partner to challenge the rising aggressiveness of China over sea and its neighbourhood is now being widely discussed.

The latest trilateral dialogue, held on February 24, between India, France and Australia should be viewed in this background. The first trilateral meeting between India, France and Australia was held on September 9, 2020 at the height of Corona pandemic and India-China military tensions over the eastern Ladakh borders.

The first meeting kick-started at the Secretary level took note of unilateral Chinese aggressiveness over Indian borders, which raised worldwide concerns. After this first meeting, the External Affairs Ministry had revealed that the focus of the dialogue was enhancing cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

The ministry had then said that the outcome oriented meeting was held with the objective of building on the strong bilateral ties that the three countries share with each other and synergize their respective strengths to ensure a peaceful, secure, prosperous and rules based Indo-Pacific region.

Under the trilateral format the three countries exchange ideas on priorities, challenges and trends in regional and global multilateral institutions, including the best ways to strengthen and reform multilateralism. The three democratic powers also discuss ways and means to further strengthen cooperation on marine global commons and potential areas for practical partnership at the trilateral and the regional level.

They have also declared their intent to engage with regional organisations such as ASEAN, Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Indian Ocean Commission, so as to collectively promote peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

India, France and Australia, being Indian Ocean powers, have strong strategic interests in jointly keeping the maritime area free of military rivalry and tensions. They have been watching with concern, how China has of late been expanding its footprint and establishing its direct presence in the Indian Ocean with port facilities from Djibouti to Colombo to Gwadar and on Island nations like Maldives, Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius. It is high time that Indo-Pacific powers come together to jointly face the China challenge.

The author is a Delhi-based senior journalist with expertise in defence and strategic affairs; views expressed are his personal