The contemporary discourse on International Relations endorses and encourages multilateralism. However, multilateralism, due to its large number of partners, is fast turning into a talk shop where everything and anything is discussed, and only a few issues achieve fruition. Furthermore, multilateral groupings can at times become battlegrounds for politico-diplomatic contestation when powerful states attempt to push their respective agendas in the Outcome Documents. Unlike multilateralism, minilateralism is emerging as a preferred way to transact business among smaller number of partners. Under this arrangement, States constitute a new platform and converge to foster dialogue and cooperation on political, economic, strategic, technology, development and sociocultural issues.
Minilateralism can be called as the smaller cousin of multilateralism and is fast gaining currency. Significantly, States and regional groupings have taken liking for it. It offers a structured opportunity to identify issues of common interest and to harness capacities of partners to address particular issues. It is quite nimble and enables quick exchange of information between small numbers of States capable of reaching out to each other. Importantly, minilateral groupings can also be carved out of multilateral structures such as the ‘ASEAN plus One’ or ‘ASEAN plus Three’.
Among the many such formulations, India, Japan and Vietnam have an opportunity to explore minilateral engagements given that there are common issues that the three countries discuss at the levels of Prime Ministers, and Foreign and Defence Ministers during bilateral political consultations and strategic dialogues. There are at least four common threads that can potentially act as drivers for such an initiative.
First is about the evolving security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region. This issue is of concern to India, Japan and Vietnam. It has figured prominently in the recent Vietnam-India and Vietnam-Japan joint statements. These countries have emphasised on working closely with the goal of ensuring regional and international peace, stability and prosperity. For instance, Japan expressed “recognition of Vietnam’s increasing role and constructive contributions in international and regional issues in addition to confirmation of Vietnam’s consistent importance in Japan’s foreign policy toward the Indo-Pacific region”. Likewise, Vietnam acknowledged Japan’s role as an “important and longstanding partner and expressed the desire for Japan to continue to play a positive and constructive role in international and regional issues”.
The ‘2020 India – Vietnam Joint Vision for Peace, Prosperity and People’ similarly notes that “enhanced defence and security partnership between India and Vietnam will be an important factor of stability in the Indo-Pacific region. To this end, the two sides will step up their military-to-military exchanges, training and capacity building programmes across the three services and coast guards and will intensify their defence industry collaboration building on India’s defence credit lines extended to Vietnam”.
Second, India acknowledges the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP)’ which promotes “peace, security, stability and prosperity for the peoples in the Southeast Asia as well as in the wider Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions or the Indo-Pacific” and endorses “ASEAN Centrality” which is the “underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.” Japan too has endorsed the AOIP and has conveyed its “willingness to support and cooperate with Vietnam and ASEAN, including for the AOIP, under the principle of ASEAN centrality”.
Closely associated with the AOIP is the ‘Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI)’ under which India seeks to build a community of stakeholders by creating new partnerships with like-minded States across the Indo-Pacific region. It seeks practical cooperation in (a) Maritime Security; (b) Maritime Ecology; (c) Maritime Resources; (d) Capacity Building and Resource Sharing; (e) Disaster Risk Reduction and Management; (f) Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation; and (g) Trade, Connectivity and Maritime Transport. Japan has agreed to lead the IPOI pillar on Trade, Connectivity and Maritime Transport and it is an opportunity for Vietnam to explore any of the seven thematic areas under the IPOI.
Third, there is a common understanding and agreement on the importance of upholding the rule of law particularly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). India, Japan and Vietnam have underscored and emphasized the primacy of legal framework set out under the 1982 UNCLOS and have vehemently argued in favour of the 1982 UNCLOS as the “basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones”.
Fourth, there is convergence between India and Japan on the development of the Mekong region. India’s Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) initiative involving Vietnam, Cambodia Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar resonates with Japan-Mekong framework under which sustainable management and development of the Mekong River are a high priority.
The above drives some of the many initiatives for India, Japan and Vietnam to explore through a formal minilateral consultative arrangement. These should trigger newer convergences in diverse issues confronting the Indo-Pacific region.