India, Japan, U.S. plan to push ties to next level

India, the U.S. and Japan are set to raise their trilateral engagement to the ministerial level, with a meeting of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry planned on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Officials of the three countries meet twice a year, but the elevation of the engagement to the political level will mark a new beginning in the cooperation, with potential implications for the Indian Ocean region.

The ministerial meeting will fulfil a promise made in the India-U.S. joint statement of September 30, 2014, after a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama.

“Noting India’s ‘Act East’ policy and the United States’ rebalance to Asia, the leaders committed to work more closely with other Asia Pacific countries through consultations, dialogues and joint exercises. They underlined the importance of their trilateral dialogue with Japan and decided to explore holding this dialogue among their Foreign Ministers,” the joint statement had said.

Ms. Swaraj, who is in the U.S. capital on September 21 and 22, will return to New Delhi owing to personal reasons and will come back to New York for the annual general debate at the U.N. General Assembly between September 28 and October 3, according to current plans. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in the U.S. from September 23 to 29.

While India under Mr. Modi has taken bolder steps towards multilateralism in strategic ties, compared with the previous regimes, New Delhi still remains guarded in its approach. This is apparent in India’s cold response to a recent U.S. proposal that Australia too take part in the Malabar naval exercise that will have Indian, Japanese and U.S. fleets in joint action in mid-October. Though this exercise has been taking place regularly, it is the first time after 2007 that the Malabar comes to Indian waters. In 2007, the joint exercise had stirred up a political controversy in India and provoked sharp reactions from China, prompting the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, to clarify that it was not aimed at China in anyway. Japan and the U.S., too, have been categorical that their cooperation has nothing to do with China.

While defence ties are on the rise between countries, India is still doubtful about the desirability of Australia’s participation in the joint exercise.

A diplomatic source, however, downplayed the possibility of the decision being influenced by Chinese concerns.

“When a joint exercise has too many participating countries, the intensity of the cooperation is brought down to the lowest common levels. That may defeat the very purpose of the exercise,” said the source, who did not want to be named.

Meeting of Sushma Swaraj, Fumio Kishida and John Kerry planned on sidelines of UNGA

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