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South China Sea and the US-India-Japan Trilateral Revitalisation

Paper No. 5811                                  Dated 27-Oct-2014

By Dr Subhash Kapila

The re-vitalisation of the US-India-Japan Trilateral is a contextual response lately to China’s conflict-escalation in the South China Sea primarily followed by military brinkmanship against Japan in the East China Sea region.

Underlying the very creation of the recently crafted US-India Strategic Partnership and the Japan-India Global and Strategic Partnership superimposed over and above the half a century old US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty was the strategic imperative of these three major nations to correct the strategic imbalance creeping in the Asian balance of power.

The South China Sea maritime disputes over sovereignty issues was generated by China decades back with the forcible military occupation of the Paracel and Spratly Islands from Vietnam’s lawful  jurisdiction and sovereignty. Later the same brinkmanship strategies stand applied also in the Spratlys against the Philippines.

By China’s conflict escalation in the South China Sea maritime expanse the South China Sea as a whole has emerged as the most potent explosive flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific endangering not only South East Asian and ASEAN regional security but also Asian security.

The South China Sea disputes are no longer confined to bilateral disputes between China and Vietnam or between China and the Philippines or between China and the other ASEAN disputants like Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

The South China Sea conflict- escalation by China has resulted in its being thrust into the global strategic calculus as a flashpoint endangering global peace and security by virtue of the significant political and strategic stakes that other major non-South East Asian countries which have in the security and safety of the South China Sea maritime expanse.

If countries like the United States, India Japan and Australia and even the European Union countries were muted for varying reasons in their responses till lately on South China Sea conflict-escalation by China, it was so because all of them vainly hoped that China would respond to various conflict de-escalation and conflict resolution attempts by ASEAN and other countries.

On the contrary, China far from conflict de-escalation has till lately as May 2014 went on a further conflict-escalation spree in the South China Sea maritime expanse. Post-May 2014 conflict-escalation, China has given enough notice through its official pronouncements that it has no intention to submit to any multilateral conflict-resolution processes and that it reserves the right to militarise South China Sea islands and land-forms as they constitute Chinese territory.

The revitalisation of the US-India-Japan Trilateral which commenced earlier with the US Bush Administration was a natural contextual strategic response to China’s blatant defiance of international norms especially in relation to freedom of navigation through international maritime expanses and the defence, security and safety of global commons.

The short lull that took place in the reinforcing of the US-India-Japan Trilateral occurred with the advent of the Obama Administration which in its opening years was enamoured by China and could not see through the Chinese smokescreen of strategic duplicity. Subsequent Chinese strategies aimed at strategic devaluation of the United States forced a realisation on President Obama that China was not a benign actor in Asian security and hence the revitalisation process of the Trilateral.

The US-India-Japan Trilateral is a potent strategic coalition if fully and substantively revitalised combining the strategic weights of the United States as the global unipolar power and the power of Asia’s two emerging global powers in the form of India and Japan.

Vietnam alone or Vietnam and Philippines combined together lack the political and strategic weight to withstand China’s further conflict-escalation and military adventurism in the South China Sea region. These two countries need international political and strategic support to withstand China’s aggressive strategies in the South China Sea.

The US-India-Japan Trilateral is an international coalition which represents the coalescing of the strategic convergences that exist among these three nations impelled by their legitimate stakes in the freedom of passage and manoeuvres through global commons which cannot illegally be appropriated by China as its own.

Visible attempts are noticeable in the revitalisation of the US-India-Japan Trilateral in the form of renewed officials-level dialogues and some joint naval exercises amongst the three nations for better interoperability.

With China’s unrestrained brinkmanship in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, enough prospects exist that may encourage other countries to join and expand this Trilateral  as a nucleus.

Importantly, this urge should logically emerge in the ASEAN countries as a whole which China has successfully attempted to divide over a united regional response. ASEAN needs to resist Chinese disruptive strategies over the South China Sea issue for if ASEAN fails to do so it may endanger the very continuance and existence of ASEAN as a solid regional actor.

The US-India-Japan Trilateral comprises nations which not have sizeable stakes in the South China Sea security and safety but also have sizeable stakes in Asian security and safety as whole and share concerted perceptions that no regional hegemonistic power emerges endangering it. That should be the driving force that should logically impel the US-India-Japan Trilateral to provide the strategic ballast against any such impulses and this would require further revitalisation transcending officials-level dialogues and periodic naval exercises.

(Dr Subhash Kapila is Consultant, International Relations and Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at