Indo-Pacific Triangle Can Be a Regional Force

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As advocates for trilateral co-operation among the US, Australia and India, we have watched with interest the attention given to the idea in the media over the past few weeks. To be clear: we are not proposing a security treaty.

What we are proposing is co-operation across a broad range of shared interests, from counter-terrorism to proliferation, and many areas besides. We also suggest a formal diplomatic process - a dialogue - to support this co-operation.

Several such mechanisms already exist. There is an active US-Japan-Australia trilateral and a US-Japan-India dialogue to commence later this month. China has dialogues that serve its interests with South Korea and Japan, and with Russia and India.

However, a formal diplomatic mechanism is not the most important part of what we propose. That is the practical co-operation the three countries can achieve on matters of mutual interest.

In partnership with scholars at the Lowy Institute and India's Observer Research Foundation, we released a report on this topic last month in Sydney and New Delhi entitled Shared Goals, Converging Interests: A Plan for US-Australia-India Co-operation in the Indo-Pacific.

Each side of this triangle is already well under development. Australia enjoys a level of access, planning and co-operation with the US defence establishment that only a handful of its allies can claim. The US-India relationship took off with the civil nuclear agreement and 2005 defence framework agreement. India is a major American arms sales partner and conducts more military exercises with the US than with any other nation.

On the India-Australia side of the triangle, the 2009 Joint Declaration on Security Co-operation was a major milestone. The areas of shared interests identified in that document, including maritime security and defence, are several of the same areas identified in our report.

The recent decision on uranium sales has opened up the prospects for fulfilling the declaration's purpose. In New Delhi, we heard at every turn how positive a gesture on uranium would be for India-Australia relations, and by extension, how it might improve the prospects for trilateral co-operation.

The three countries can further develop thinking about India's relationship to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the global nonproliferation regime that accounts for the reality that India, although a positive force in stemming proliferation of dangerous weapons technology, is unlikely to join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state.

President Barack Obama has stated his intention to bring India into the four major nonproliferation groupings: the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Missile Technology Control Regime, Australia Group and Wassenaar.

The Australia Group is the easiest place to start India's formal entry into the global export control network. Canberra could advise India on harmonising its export controls and encourage other members to welcome India's admission.

One of the most promising areas for trilateral co-operation is enhancing maritime security and maintaining freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific. Two-thirds of Indian oil and gas imports transit the Indian Ocean waters and most of Australia's resource exports transit East Asian waterways.

India is steadily building up its naval capabilities, giving particular attention to its Eastern Naval Command's role in its overall naval strategy and foreign policy. Three years ago, India convened the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, inviting participants from the littoral states, including Australia, to discuss maritime security. One concrete deliverable in this area would be India joining the multilateral Combined Task Force 151 anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.

Washington, Canberra and New Delhi share the goal of preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a haven for international terrorists. Given several roadblocks the US has hit with its strategy in Afghanistan, it is clear the conflict is far from over and it's a conflict that has enormous implications for trends in global terrorism that affect all three nations.

Washington should work with both countries to fortify Afghanistan's institutions to preserve the democratic and human development gains made over the last decade. Washington and Canberra should fully support New Delhi's role in Afghanistan, noting that it has every right to safeguard its interests there.

All three countries are economically and diplomatically engaged with China. All three are also hedging against the potential negative side of China's rise. There is great value in discussing the experiences we have had in reconciling these approaches. The outcomes need not be all negative. We may develop new, constructive ways of dialogue with the Chinese.

The US, Australia and India have intersecting, not identical interests. Geography alone dictates that we see the world from different angles. But there is enough commonality that we should consider those areas where our perspectives do overlap and work together where it is in our mutual interest. A security pact is not necessary for us to do that.

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