The case for a Britain-India-Japan ‘Trilateral’

The Indo-Pacific has lately become home to an increasing number of ‘minilaterals’, with cross-continental cooperation emerging as a convenient medium alongside an emphasis on ‘third country’ or ‘tripartite’ collaborations. In this vein, a United Kingdom (UK)-India-Japan (UKIJ) trilateral, though officially non-existent at present, should be considered. Given the UK’s strategic ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, and Japan and India’s strategic convergence to engage with Euro-Atlantic countries, could a UKIJ trilateral realistically happen?

This sort of proposed trilateral would bring together both ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ foreign policy constituencies in the three countries. Connected by their democratic values and convergent Indo-Pacific policies, such a grouping could be easily envisioned – especially given the importance attached to ‘third country’ cooperation in India-Japan ties. The 13th India-Japan Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue in October 2020 saw both states resolve to further shape their shared Indo-Pacific outlook through cooperation with third countries. Alongside elevating their ties to a ‘special strategic and global partnership’, India and Japan are engaged in several trilateral frameworks, such as with the United States (US), Australia, and most recently, France. Given its Indo-Pacific tilt, Britain could be a formidable ‘third country’ partner for India and Japan in the region under the aegis of a new strategic triangle. 

The three powers are already being driven together by a range of factors that could glue them together such as their mutually compatible approaches to countering Chinese revisionism, commitments to regional maritime security and shared democratic values. Under India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Tokyo-New Delhi partnership matured through regular strategic consultations, including their ‘2+2’ foreign and defence ministerial dialogue, and high-level interactions on cooperation to overcome shared challenges. Both countries share close security relations too, as exemplified by their recent military logistics pact, digital partnership and strategic connectivity outreach to third countries. 

Equally, India and Britain are natural defence partners with joint military exercises and defence consultations. Both agreed to a Defence and International Security Partnership in 2015, which encompassed key areas like defence technology, cyber and maritime security, counterterrorism and more. Under this, London and New Delhi have strengthened their Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Equipment Cooperation, established a Defence Technology and Industrial Capability pact, and are currently finalising defence logistics and training agreements. Furthermore, the British government is looking to institute a government-to-government format for arms transactions (replacing its regular commercial arms sales framework) to cater to India’s preference, which could usher in a more robust security-centred partnership. 

Similarly, the UK considers Japan a close security partner, ‘enduring friend’ and a key component of its Indo-Pacific strategy. The unofficial British-Japanese alliance is characterised not only by strengthening maritime security arrangements but a lucrative trade relationship, furthered by their bilateral trade agreement (the first such pact post-Brexit) and the UK’s intended entry to the Japan-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Both states affirmed their cooperation in security, defence, cyber, health and maritime domains at their February ‘2+2’ meeting, while also endorsing ‘continued cooperation on capacity-building’ with third Indo-Pacific countries to realise their regional vision; a UKIJ trilateral would facilitate further bilateral cooperation on these fronts.

Thus, the time has come to enhance these bilateral synergies into a minilateral framework of cross-continental cooperation. And the prime consideration for such a trilateral draws from the UK’s emerging Indo-Pacific outlook. Post-Brexit, Britain seeks to emerge as a global power. London’s recent (and unprecedentedly broad) Integrated Review highlights the Indo-Pacific’s strategic significance. It commits Britain to be the European partner with the ‘broadest and most integrated’ presence in the region, by envisaging more profound ties with key regional partners, not least India and Japan. The UK could, therefore, be a vital partner in India-Japan cooperation to realise a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

Lack of on-ground practical experiences may admittedly create a barrier to this trilateral. Britain, for one, has little physical presence in the Indo-Pacific apart from a handful of military bases to build its geopolitical footprint in the region. The UK’s regional presence is limited to the British Indian Ocean Territory and several other military outposts. Additionally, Japan and India’s foreign-policy approaches towards the UK are not necessarily homogeneous. Yet, London appears to be revisiting its narrow outlook. As Britain under Boris Johnson looks to establish a persistent and forward deployed military engagement in the region, a UKIJ trilateral is critical in overcoming these areas of limited compatibility. Likewise, India and Japan aim for a cross-continental partnership to guide and realise their envisioned ‘special and global partnership’, and the UK could emerge as a critical international partner.

A practical implementation of such convergence is already visible. Emphasising its Indo-Pacific tilt, a British Carrier Strike Group – Operation Fortis – led by Britain’s flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will steam to India and Japan through the South China Sea in its high-profile maiden operational voyage. Not only will the naval group conduct joint exercises with India and Japan, but willmark its commitment to security and stability in the Indian Ocean and East Asia. Essentially, the deployment is a ‘symbol of Global Britain in action’; it demonstrates Britain’s intent to engage more deeply with Indo-Pacific politics. A UKIJ grouping with regular consultations could initiate a unique and much-needed conversation between the three partners and emerge as a practical manifestation of their growing synergy.

For India and Japan, UKIJ would be rooted in their desire to participate in diplomatic and security structures beyond the US. Although the US remains a crucial partner for both (and a treaty ally for Tokyo), intensifying US-China great power rivalry has necessitated a balancing strategy wherein a strong response to Chinese revisionism is combined with a desire to temper tensions and preserve regional peace.

All three states have a striking convergence in not only their Indo-Pacific approaches, but also their outlooks and grievances with the PRC. Britain has officially acknowledged Beijing as a ‘systemic competitor’, with PRC-UK relations taking a downturn over the past year; in deterring the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), London has sanctioned its Xinjiang policies as genocide, condemned the PRC’s oppressive actions in Hong Kong and banned Huawei from its 5G telecommunications network over cyber security concerns. Considering Britain’s dependence on China for critical goods, London recognises the centrality of the large Chinese economy for global economic growth, but also identifies it as the ‘biggest state-based threat’ to its economic security and therefore the need for continued engagement. India and Japan face similar dilemmas in balancing economic concerns with security threats emanating from the CCP’s belligerent and expansionist agenda. 

Here, a UKIJ dialogue could help construct a durable and pragmatic diplomatic framework that encourages broader cooperation in building resilience, protecting national institutions, safeguarding sensitive technologies and coordinating a resolute response. A UKIJ grouping could open doors for it to engage with the India-Japan-Australia-led Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI), launched on April 27, 2021, to share best practices on building resilient value chains and promote risk diversification. For instance, the UK could be a participant in investment promotion events and buyer-seller matching events being conceived under the SCRI.  Similarly, UKIJ could also facilitate Britain’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) as a ‘Plus’ (or full) member. Regular trilateral dialogues would enhance political synergy between the three states, and thus enable stronger partnerships that reduce policy disparities and bridge the capability gaps between London and the Quad.

Furthermore, UKIJ could leverage the three powers’ bilateral and individual focuses on critical emerging technologies to collaborate on security issues in domains like cyberspace, outer space and electronic warfare. This joint focus could begin from exchanging experiences and challenges, to concerted research and development efforts, and enhancing shared capabilities to respond to threats – thus complementing the Quad’s own work in the area. Importantly, a UKIJ trilateral could strengthen discussions on values, democratic ideals and freedom of expression that have been subjugated under the PRC’s rising revisionism and authoritarianism.

To put it directly, the notion of a UKIJ grouping could be a ground-breaking logical exercise, strengthening the three powers’ respective Indo-Pacific outlooks. Theoretically, engaging Britain in a UKIJ mechanism would undeniably strengthen India’s push for a ‘multipolar Asia’ and an inclusive Indo-Pacific that welcomes sustained and constructive engagement from non-Asian maritime powers, while undermining the CCP’s ‘Asia for Asians’ proposition that seeks to cement Chinese dominance in the continent. London, New Delhi and Tokyo must urgently consider the merits of a regular three-way dialogue to inform policy making, build on existing cooperation and add to the emerging geo-strategic reality in the Indo-Pacific.

Mahima Duggal is an Associated Research Fellow at the Stockholm Centre for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs of the Institute for Security and Development Policy.

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