Over the past few months, India has been involved in three low-key— almost surreptitious—trilateral meetings to address hard security questions vital to its national interests. These unpublicized meetings are in contrast to the high profile bilateral, trilateral and other summits, which have primarily focused on economic and soft-power issues and have become the hallmark of the Narendra Modi government’s brand of foreign policy. The three recent below-the-radar meetings underline three trends in India’s evolving foreign policy.
First, they indicate New Delhi’s growing confidence and ability to conduct sensitive diplomacy, even with adversaries such as China, away from the public eye. Second, they reflect that different agencies, and not just the ministry of external affairs, are now negotiating foreign and security policy. Third, the meetings are proof that hedging is becoming a leitmotif of the evolving Modi doctrine.
The first of these trilateral meeting—in New Delhi in May between China, India and Russia—explored the prospects of cooperation in Afghanistan. This meeting was attended by the deputy national security advisers of the three countries and focused on security. The officials agreed to improve coordination, particularly on the Istanbul process, and to give a more effective role to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The latter might partly explain India’s formal entry into the SCO at Ufa just weeks later as well as the second bilateral meeting within a month between Modi and Xi Jinping. For India, this trilateral is an acknowledgement of China’s growing influence and role in Afghanistan, evident in Beijing’s clandestine facilitation of negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The second trilateral in early June, also held in New Delhi, was at the foreign secretary level between India, Australia and Japan. While no joint statement was released, the first ever meeting of this trilateral group was ostensibly to firm up the security leg of India’s “Act East” policy and its China-centric connotation was not lost on observers. Some experts see this trilateral as a way of reviving the 2007 idea of the “Quadrilateral Alliance” (between Australia, India, Japan and the US), which was dropped in the face of Beijing’s objections; while that might take some time, this trilateral will compel China to take India more seriously.
The third meeting in late June was the seventh iteration of the India-Japan-US trilateral. Held in Honolulu—the headquarters of the formidable US Pacific Command—this meeting too served to highlight the security and military dimension of India’s “Act East” policy and the common interest of all members to balance China in the region.
Although at New Delhi’s insistence the meeting is held at the level of joint secretaries, rather than at the ministerial or secretary level, so as not antagonize China, its outcome is significant. This trilateral operationalizes the January 2015 “US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” commitment to “making trilateral consultations with third countries (read Japan, Australia) in the region more robust”. One clear evidence of this is the decision taken following the trilateral to expand “Malabar 2015”, the annual naval exercise between India and the US, to include Japan. Subsequently, in late July, military officials from the three countries met at the Yokosuka naval base near Tokyo to plan the exercise. While China is bound to object, India can point to Beijing’s stepped up activities in the Indian Ocean and its own similar joint exercises.
Clearly, the tale of these three trilateral meetings shows that an increasingly confident India is now using all its limited capacity and is willing to engage with even adversaries to advance its own interests while simultaneously hedging its bets against the adversary. That is the only way to advance in the evolving multipolar world.
This column first appeared in The Mint, on August 3, 2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.