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What about India, Indonesia, Australia: The new trilateral? 

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Among the growing network of trilateral discussions involving India and other countries, one that has received relatively little attention is the dialogue involving India, Indonesia, and Australia. The three countries held their first senior officials’ trilateral dialogue in November 2017 in Indonesia. To discuss this new trilateral, Brookings India and the Perth USAsia Centre hosted a public panel discussion featuring former Indonesian Deputy Foreign Minister Dino Patti Djalal, former Australian Foreign Affairs Secretary Peter Varghese, and former Indian Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon. The discussion was moderated by Indrani Bagchi, Diplomatic Editor at The Times of India. Stephen Smith, former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade made concluding remarks.

There was a consensus among the panelists that we are in a world of flux and the rules-based order is under increasing strain. According to Menon, the Indo-Pacific region has undergone a structural shift. It has witnessed the world’s greatest arms build-up in the last two decades while doctrines underpinning the strategic environment have changed. The emergence of authoritarian leadership in many countries has also reduced the states’ capability to negotiate and undertake diplomacy. Peter Varghese highlighted the narrowing predominance of the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific and the unqualified strategic ambition of China to be the dominant power in Asia. Dino Patti Djalal also voiced similar concerns, in addition to the erosion of multilateralism around the world and ASEAN’s struggles with ASEAN centrality.

With the world undergoing significant shifts, the strategic culture in the Indo-Pacific is more likely to be shaped and dominated by Chinese values going forward. The Chinese strategic culture, dominated by a one-party system architecture, is likely to be different from the rules-based order that the U.S. advocated. As such there is currently no framework that can adapt, balance as well as engage with China at the same time. Menon and Varghese believe that the process of creating a new framework will be organic, based on the evolution of balance of power in the region and individual interests of countries. Informal coalitions such as the trilateral between India, Indonesia and Australia can be one of the many different answers to this adjustment of power.

With the world undergoing significant shifts, the strategic culture in the Indo-Pacific is more likely to be shaped and dominated by Chinese values going forward.

It is important to highlight that each of the countries in the trilateral view China through different prisms. India views China through the prism of a difficult neighbor with a complicated history. For Australia and Indonesia, China is an important economic partner, with its strategic ambitions being a concern for both. As such their issues with China differ from each other. Nevertheless, there is also convergence of interests between the three countries. India, Indonesia and Australia share common concerns over issues such as maritime security, trade and cyber security and believe in democratic values and open economies. They are also concerned about the breakdown of the rules-based order in the region.

India, Indonesia and Australia share common concerns over issues such as maritime security, trade and cyber security and believe in democratic values and open economies.

In conclusion, geopolitical weight is now moving to the Indo-Pacific from the North Pacific. Many countries in Asia are now simultaneously strengthening, shifting geopolitical goalposts. Chinese assertiveness and lack of confidence in American leadership are also creating significant disruptions in the world order. Given this context, cooperation between countries with converging interests remains a sensible strategy in diplomacy.

Geoffrey Flugge, a research intern at Brookings India, contributed to this report.

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