James Holmes

Strategic Triangle: A Japan-Australia-India Coalition at Sea?

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James Holmes

Strategic Triangle: A Japan-Australia-India Coalition at Sea?

Mutual interests and threats make a triangular maritime coalition sensible. But will it be enough?

The Naval Diplomat ventured from sweltering New England to sweltering Washington, DC last Friday to explore Japanese maritime cooperation with fellow Asian seafaring powers. Well, cooperation with powers apart from A Certain Large Asian Power Whose Name May Not Be Spoken, anyway.

Hosted by my pals at the Center for a New American Security, the event took place at the Willard Hotel. This majestic edifice, a stone's throw from the White House, is renowned for its lobby. Indeed, the term lobbyist was coined for various advocates' practice of waiting there to intercept government officials and members of America's native criminal class, and, well, lobby for particular policies, federal largesse, or what-not. How's that for a nifty historical footnote?

But I digress (not for the first time). The CNAS organizers, clearly a reckless lot, asked me, the loose cannon, to act as discussant for a panel on maritime cooperation among Japan, Australia, and India. I jotted down a few thoughts for the panel while stranded in Providence awaiting my flight. Here's the gist of them.

Let's start off by consulting the map — never a bad first step when grappling with a wicked problem. Japan, Australia, and India lie along a vast outer maritime crescent enclosing continental East Asia. That external position, plus the long lines of communication connecting the three countries and the potentially contested terrain lying in between, would make working together a trying prospect in times of strife. A loose consortium in peacetime, and for police functions to which no one objects, fine. In competitive times, watch out.

Another thing leapt off the map while surveying the CNAS agenda, complemented by a cursory reading of history. The second panel reviewed Japanese relations with South Korea and the ASEAN countries. If the outer-crescent powers are liberal seagoing republics, the inner crescent is home to an assemblage of (mostly) continental nations. One shares a land frontier with China, another, South Korea, a border with China's ally North Korea. And, with the exception of Thailand, the interior countries all fell to Imperial Japanese conquest within living memory. That imperial legacy hangs a millstone on contemporary Japan's relations with Koreans and Southeast Asians.

Back to Japan, Australia, and India. Beset by distended sea lanes, convoluted geography, and the myriad other stresses the strategic setting imposes, Tokyo, Canberra, and New Delhi must attach considerable political value to combined naval and military action in order to justify the costs, hardships and political headaches such a coalition would entail. Mutual interests, and in particular mutual threats, are the most dependable adhesives that bind together alliances and coalitions. The more compelling the common interest, or the more deadly the menace, the greater the likelihood that the collaborative impulse will override the differences that work against such joint enterprises as policing the commons or facing down hostile powers.

Let's not forget that maritime cooperation in far-flung oceans constitutes a secondary effort for each one of these countries. It's doubtful that, say, the Bay of Bengal will ever constitute a primary theater for Japan. Likewise for India in the East China Sea. Clausewitz counsels against embroiling yourself in secondary operations unless you stand to gain something "exceptionally rewarding," and unless you enjoy "decisive superiority" in the main sphere of action, and thus can spare the resources for lesser pursuits without undue risk.

Does Japan enjoy decisive superiority in Northeast Asia? Less and less so, which leads us to Clausewitz's dismal verdict on alliances and coalitions. You never attach the same value to someone else's cause that you attach to your own, he advises. Common practice is to back up your partners halfheartedly. You send a middling-sized force to the ally's aid, and look for the exit when the going gets tough.

All of this suggests that the new partnerships now forming up along the Asian periphery may find it easy to do easy things together, but that relations will come under enormous strain when the time comes to do hard and perilous things.

On the bright side, certain social, cultural, and ideological affinities may supply lubricant to smooth out bilateral or tripartite relations among the parties. Japan, Australia, and India are constitutional republics whose governing arrangements would gladden Immanuel Kant's heart

Australia and India both fought Imperial Japan seventy years ago, but unlike Korea and most of Southeast Asia, neither succumbed to Japanese arms. The reflexive suspicions marring Japanese cooperation with one-time subject nations such as South Korea or Vietnam are muted in dealings among Tokyo, Canberra, and New Delhi.

Far be it from me to counsel despair about maritime coalition-building. The effort is worth undertaking, and Tokyo should pursue it with vigor. Let's work together by all means, but let's not make the mistake of assuming that collaborative arrangements will fall into place of their own accord or manage themselves. "Natural" or "special" alliances are few and far between, and those few tend to come about through traumas like world war — not something coalition managers should wish for.

Managing multinational endeavors takes attentive care and feeding, no matter how like-minded, democratic, or just darned nice the partners may be.

And on that dour note, let the effort begin!