Last week, India, France, and Australia held their first trilateral meeting. The senior officials’ meeting, held in a virtual setting, was co-chaired by Vardhan Shringla, India’s foreign secretary; François Delattre, secretary-general of the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs; and Frances Adamson, secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), in a statement, said that the trilateral meeting was an effort at strengthening cooperation among the three countries in the Indo-Pacific region. The statement also noted that the three countries plan to meet on an annual basis. Tweeting about the meeting, the MEA said, “We agreed to build convergences in our approach to the Indo-Pacific region and to explore ways to strengthen trilateral cooperation, particularly in the maritime domain.”
An Australian readout of the meeting was similar to the Indian statement, while the French readout was more explicit in emphasizing the importance of international law, peace, and security in the Indo-Pacific. The French statement said that the meeting “helped underscore the goal of guaranteeing peace, security and adherence to international law in the Indo-Pacific by drawing on the excellence of bilateral relations between France, India and Australia.” The French ambassador in India also tweeted, saying that “Together we will uphold our values and interests!”
While none of the readouts mention China per se, China is clearly the key reason for the emergence of this and a number of other minilaterals in the region. The India-France-Australia trilateral is only the latest of the many minilaterals that are taking shape in the Indo-Pacific region. India, which traditionally did not join these exclusive small groups, has shown greater interest and capacity in the last few years. There is also an India-Australia-Indonesia trilateral that is taking shape. In fact, Indian media reports note that India, Australia, and Indonesia are getting ready for two virtual meetings in the coming weeks between the foreign and defense ministries of the three countries in order to enhance broader regional strategic cooperation as well as maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region.
There is also the India-Japan-Australia trilateral, another significant group, which had its first meeting in 2015. There is already an India-U.S.-Japan trilateral. Since 2015, Japan has also participated with India and the United States in India’s Malabar series of naval exercises as a permanent partner.
Indeed, even the idea of the India-France-Australia trilateral is not new. The need for such initiatives has been discussed in track 2 and track 1.5 formats and experts and officials have long made the case for elevating these conversations to an official level. In 2018, Carnegie India, the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, and the National Security College of the Australian National University came together to explore the potential areas of cooperation as well as the extent of possibilities under such a framework. In an op-ed in May 2018, C. Raja Mohan, Rory Medcalf, and Bruno Tertrais (representing the three think tanks that had organized one such track 1.5 forum) detailed the “striking convergence of security interests, defense capabilities and maritime geography” that bring Delhi, Canberra, and Paris together. They argued that the three “respect a rules-based order informed by the sovereign equality of nations and the need to guard against coercion and interference, whether from states or from terrorism.” Thereafter, French President Emmanuel Macron during his visit to Australia spoke of “the Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis” that should be strengthened as “an established regional structure, reflecting an Indo-Pacific ‘geo-strategic reality in the making.’”
At the inaugural India-France-Australia trilateral, the three officials took stock of the prevailing and future economic and strategic challenges and possible ways of cooperation in addressing the challenges of COVID-19 and beyond. Maritime security and securing the marine global commons were particularly identified as important issues for trilateral and broader regional cooperation through regional institutions such as ASEAN, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), and the Indian Ocean Commission. That India has concluded logistics agreements with both France and Australia brings their cooperation around maritime security issues a bit closer to reality.
According to the MEA, the three leaders also focused on trends, challenges, and priorities in regional and global multilateral institutions and discussed ways to review, strengthen, and reform multilateralism. This assumes particular importance in the context of the functioning of institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) especially in the initial weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic The fact that the WHO was influenced heavily by a single power, China, which some argue has resulted in the current global health crisis, will remain a constant reminder of the trends and challenges in multilateralism and multilateral institutions.
The India-France-Australia trilateral meeting was also a result of the deepening bilateral relations among the three countries across multiple sectors, and aimed at “synergizing their respective strengths to ensure a peaceful, secure, prosperous and rules-based Indo-Pacific Region.” In fact, this was part of a set of recommendations made by the Australian Senate Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Committee to “explore the India France Australia trilateral dialogue to enhance strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.” Related issues such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime domain awareness, the blue economy, and marine biodiversity were also discussed at the meeting. Given the increasing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, one area that could gain greater attention from the three countries is maritime surveillance to monitor the Chinese naval activities in these waters. The three could work out some burden sharing in this regard to step up vigilance on these waters.
Commenting on the rationale for the India-France-Australia trilateral, Abhijnan Rej, The Diplomat’s security and defense editor, wrote that against the backdrop of “recent American unpredictability” U.S. allies in the region are looking to create “a more networked architecture involving a range of often-overlapping minilateral arrangements and consultative mechanisms.” Given this strategic rationale, the India-France-Australia trilateral is a natural fit for all three because of their stake in ensuring a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific order. France, via its overseas territories, has 8,000 defense personnel, 1.5 million French citizens, and 93 percent of its maritime economic exclusive zone in the Indo-Pacific, making it a legitimate stakeholder, with huge stakes in the Indo-Pacific region.
The other important rationale for many of these trilaterals has to do with capacity issues. The Indo-Pacific region has several capable navies and yet their ability to match up to China on their own is questionable. The individual capacities of these countries have remained inadequate to protect their vital security interests, and therefore there is a stronger case to be made for these kinds of minilaterals.
Given these factors, this trilateral is likely here to stay. While the U.S. will remain an important source of support for these minilateral conversations in the Indo-Pacific, the fact that New Delhi, Paris, and Canberra can also discuss various strategic issues without Washington present in the room may also be appealing to these countries from time to time.