Authored by the Security Studies team at Carnegie India

In September 2020, India, France, and Australia had their first set of trilateral talks at the foreign secretary level, during which they discussed economic and geostrategic challenges and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Their second trilateral discussion took place in February 2021 and was followed by a virtual meeting of foreign ministers at the Raisina Dialogue in April 2021.

In parallel, behind closed doors, a track 1.5 dialogue convened eminent scholars and government officials from the three nations between April 13–14, 2021. This dialogue sought to identify opportunities for collaboration in the vital issues of geostrategy, marine global commons, the blue economy, and critical technologies.

The track 1.5 dialogue was organized by Carnegie India in partnership with the Observer Research Foundation; Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, France; and the National Security College at the Australian National University, Australia. It took place as a part of the Raisina Dialogue 2021.

This summary has been compiled by the Security Studies team at Carnegie India. It is based on the closed-door discussions that took place in April 2021. The takeaways and notes below reflect Carnegie India’s reading of the discussions that took place. These are not necessarily the views of scholars at Carnegie India. This is, in essence, an event report that captures the key takeaways of the dialogue. Further, it does not reflect the views or opinions of any of our partners, such as Observer Research Foundation, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, and the National Security College at the Australian National University, or the co-hosts of this unique 1.5 track dialogue.

Track 1.5 Dialogue Takeaways

The track 1.5 dialogue involved a candid and wide-ranging exchange of assessments and policy proposals to help inform the three governments. It included representatives from government and industry as well as domain experts. The objective was not to build immediate consensus but to generate new policy ideas.

Many recommendations arose in the following strategic areas.

Emerging Geopolitics

  • Each of the three countries could adopt a principles-centric approach to the Indo-Pacific region and work with key middle powers that have an interest and agency in the region.
  • The three powers should coordinate on issues where their interests are aligned and where shared principles, such as international rules and norms, are threatened.
  • This is an opportune moment to consider a Quad Plus model for dialogue and cooperation, with France, the UK, and South Korea as prospective partners.
  • All three countries should pursue closer trilateral cooperation in developing underwater capabilities.
  • The three partners should create norms on and around illegal and unregulated fishing.

Marine Global Commons and the Blue Economy

  • An evidence-based maritime mapping exercise will be useful to the trilateral partners to identify the key issues and capacities that are available at hand.
  • The three nations should demonstrate their ability to work together and deliver by looking at model maritime infrastructure projects upon which to collaborate in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • The trilateral partners should identify the critical human security challenges (such as human trafficking and bonded labor) of maritime security and work together on setting standards to address them. Joint coast guard training and information sharing would be crucial to this process.
  • As trilateral cooperation on maritime security issues strengthens, countries should explore ways to coordinate with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), building on each partner’s existing bilateral linkages.
  • The trilateral partners should complete and promote a survey of environmental risk mapping in the Indian Ocean commons that could range across a spectrum of issues, including the impacts of climate change, resource pressures, illegal and unregulated fishing, piracy, marine pollution, and seabed mining. The completed report would provide a comprehensive picture of environmental security risk across the region and serve as a resource for regional institutions such as IORA. Think tanks and organizations in France and Australia have completed this exercise. Those in India ought to do the same.

Critical Technologies

  • Governments in the three nations could encourage a joint start-up fund in close collaboration with the private sector.
  • India, France, and Australia can collaborate on biotechnology.
  • The trilateral partners should work with the private sector to create norms for technology governance.
  • The three countries need to think more clearly about data transfers.
  • Detailed discussions about norm setting at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) are needed, especially as an ITU office will soon be opened in New Delhi.
  • All three countries should devote resources to map semiconductor supply chains and identify institutions that can do so, with the view to steadily shift production lines and reduce reliance on China.

Geopolitical Context to the Track 1.5 Dialogue

A board game of geopolitical competition, the Indo-Pacific attracts partnerships of like-minded nations with the objective of keeping the region free and inclusive. India, Japan, and Australia share a joint strategic vision with the United States for a free and open Indo-Pacific. ASEAN, during its Thirty-Fourth Semi-Annual Summit in June 2019, adopted the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which emphasises ASEAN-led mechanisms to promote peace, stability, and prosperity in the region and aims to build connectivity and maritime cooperation within it. These developments, along with several others, signal the Indo-Pacific’s growing strategic importance.

The region remains fairly under-institutionalized. There is space for flexible multilateral and minilateral partnerships that can offer alternatives and shape the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. India, France, and Australia represent a relatively new trilateral arrangement designed to foster cooperation in and across the Indo-Pacific region. Indeed, this trilateral group is quickly becoming an active diplomatic group with shared interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

Emerging Geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific Region

Discussion Highlights

The China factor: The year 2020 proved to be significant for the evolution of India’s approach to geopolitics. On the one hand, its rivalry with China intensified, but on the other, its partnership with the United States strengthened. The need to do more in the Indo-Pacific also shaped the Indian leadership’s push to further trilateral talks between India, France, and Australia. Unlike the Quad, this trilateral group is at its nascent stages of evolution, but the impetus for cooperation among the three countries has gained momentum since 2019.

Within Australia, there is a growing bipartisan willingness to challenge China. Australia initiated a complaint against China at the World Trade Organization, even though China is Australia’s largest trading partner. But it is not enough to state that China does not follow a rules-based order. It is important for other nations to show alternatives to China’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. Within this emerging security environment, it is crucial to learn from other countries that have managed China’s assertiveness. Given the pressure that Australia faces from China, especially on the trade front, do other nations believe that they will be left alone to deal with China, or will they realize the value of cooperation? This was a key question highlighted in the track 1.5 discussions. The South China Sea dispute reveals that far more needs to be done. Merely stating that Beijing is not playing by the rules of the international order can no longer be considered an effective approach for any country in the Indo-Pacific region. While the trilateral nations may not be able to match China on trade or security, there is great value in the political willingness to address China’s rise within and between the three countries.

The EU’s Indo-Pacific tilt: The Indo-Pacific region has been the focal point for many countries. In Europe, France initiated the turn toward the Indo-Pacific in 2018, followed by Germany a year and a half later. In 2021, Britain released an integrated review that focused on the Indo-Pacific. The European Union is currently drafting its Indo-Pacific policy. While various European nations have looked toward the Indo-Pacific, some participants cautioned against unwarranted expectations from European allies, given that Russia and the Mediterranean region feature higher up on Europe’s regional security priority list. Other discussants acknowledged the pressing security concerns that European nations like France face in the Indo-Pacific but argued that the EU countries can help strengthen the capabilities of countries like Japan, India, and Australia, which aim to balance China.

Track 1.5—from 2018 to 2021: Participants acknowledged the strong improvement in ties and coordination between India, France, and Australia through the track 1.5 mechanism since 2018, when the dialogue was first initiated. The trilateral discussions have encouraged Australia and France to join India on the climate change conversation. Australia is now more involved in the Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region. It has also increased coordination on illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Further avenues of cooperation include focusing on the blue economy—the sustainable use of ocean resources. India is currently focused on drafting its open, inclusive, blue economy policy.

Trilateral cooperation with other nations: It would serve the trilateral group well to retire the values-based approach and adopt a principle-centric approach. Such an approach will allow the trilateral group to work with key middle powers that may not share its core values, such as democracy, but that have an interest and agency in the region. A principle-centric approach, hinged on keeping the Indo-Pacific region free, would allow for more common ground to be found and make it easier to work with countries such as Vietnam.

Several participants raised the feasibility of trilateral cooperation with other regions such as Southeast Asia and Africa. Even though ASEAN has not directly confronted China, nationalism within ASEAN nations should not be underestimated. African nations are also important partners for India and France. France already has an active presence in the African region, in the Gulf, and in the West Indian Ocean region. For trilateral cooperation to be extended to include African countries, the approach should be an issues-based one. Certain nations like China and India, which have an active presence in Africa, come without the colonial baggage that European nations like France are saddled with.

Principles over values: The Indo-Pacific has gained currency among nations across the world in a relatively quick period. While the Quad has emerged at the heart of regional groupings to promote maritime security and advocate for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, the group still needs time to stabilize. India, France, and Australia could work on constructing parallel coalitions without the United States to ensure that the sole focus does not remain on the major power competition between the United States and China. While nations have a stake in a peaceful Indo-Pacific region, it is crucial to note that coalitions shaped by values may not be effective or even desirable. Instead, the trilateral partners should adopt a principle-centric approach. It could prove easier for the trilateral partnership (and for Quad) to work with other countries if they choose to focus on the principles that they stand for rather than framing coordination through the prism of values. This is an opportune moment to consider a Quad Plus model with France, the UK, and South Korea.

Key Takeaways

  • It would serve the trilateral group well to adopt a principle-centric approach in the Indo-Pacific region and work with key middle powers that have an interest and agency in the region.
  • This is an opportune moment to consider a Quad Plus model, with France, the UK, and South Korea as members.
  • The trilateral partnership should focus on developing its maritime capabilities by strengthening individual capacities but also by working together. Key areas for cooperation include developing underwater capabilities and SSNs (which are nuclear-powered attack submarines).
  • There is a significant disparity between the domestic considerations and economic interests that exist within the individual trilateral countries and the need for trilateral cooperation between them. Acknowledging this gap is crucial. The focus should be on emphasizing a few key issues and implementing programs accordingly.
  • The trilateral partnership can work constructively on some of the key issues around the broad scope of fisheries and within the narrower domain of illegal and unregulated fishing.

Marine Global Commons, Connectivity, and the Geopolitics of Fisheries

Deepening geopolitical rivalries in the Indian Ocean are a growing concern. Additionally, climate change and other human interactions with the environment create a series of environment-related threats. Geopolitical and environmental threats also have the potential to negatively interact with one another, leading to the further deterioration of the security environment. So far, trilateral talks have focused on how India, France, and Australia could collaborate on issues of environmental security, such as deep-sea mining, and enhance port and harbor connectivity while ensuring maritime security.

Discussion Highlights

Free, open, and inclusive: Participants highlighted that despite differing regulatory approaches to some maritime issues, India, France, and Australia share the idea of keeping the Indo-Pacific region free, open, and inclusive. This would benefit even those countries outside the Indian Ocean region that have trade passing through it. The group stressed that the seas must not turn into an arena of contestation. Any conversation on maritime issues should bear two key terms: maritime security and maritime stability.

A holistic approach to maritime security would consist of human, economic, and environmental security, in addition to the more traditional military dimension. Australia has previously assisted with maritime boundary mapping. It would serve the three partners well to undertake a capability mapping exercise to coordinate—if not cooperate—with each other and shape maritime dynamics in the Indo-Pacific. The risk-mapping exercise could also serve to create norms for third-party undersea cables, an issue of global commons. Each goal can be achieved by establishing greater connectivity in the region. Here, participants felt that the three governments can encourage the public sector and private sector to work on infrastructure projects to enhance port and harbor connectivity.

Sustainable development of the marine commons: There are several factors that affect the environmental security of the region. These include the depletion of coral reefs, marine debris, deep-sea mining, and IUU fishing. The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), launched by India in 2019, is an open, non-treaty-based initiative aimed at developing cooperative and collaborative solutions to common challenges in the region. Sustainable development of the marine commons lies at the core of the IPOI. Both France and Australia are a part of the IPOI. This positions them to make a collaborative effort to address exploitative fishing practices, given that the two countries hold influence over the Indian Ocean region and the major markets for fisheries products in the United States and the European Union.

Growing concern about IUU fishing: IUU fishing has acquired greater salience in recent times. Participants noted that while IUU fishing was initially a subset of maritime security and a developmental concern, it has now become a geopolitical concern following China’s rise. Beijing has been leveraging IUU fishing to push forward its political agenda. IUU fishing is a major cause for concern for India, France, and Australia. It affects not only the Indian Ocean region but also major markets for fisheries products, such as the EU. While domestic laws and politics complicate matters, the three countries could draw international attention to the issue and work toward creating international norms to protect fisheries. Participants also suggested that India, France, and Australia combat IUU fishing by ensuring greater information sharing through evidence-based mapping of fisheries.

Human security: Participants stated that human security remains an understudied aspect of maritime security. Some nations have mechanisms in place to counter human trafficking. For instance, Australia works with ASEAN through ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking (ASEAN-ACT). Can there be similar mechanisms among the trilateral partners for the Indian Ocean region? Participants urged India, France, and Australia to work together to create and improve capabilities to address the human security dimension.

Differing regulatory approaches to maritime issues: The difference in regulatory approaches to some of the key maritime issues is the elephant in the room. For instance, India differs from the United States on the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea. Fishery subsidies and the way the issue is tackled at the World Trade Organization also remain a concern. India argues that its low-income, resource-poor fishers ought not to be penalized due to global rules that fail to recognize that different countries are at different stages of development. Fishing arrangements must reflect current economic capacities. Other nations believe that there should be global norms and rules to tackle fishing.

Key Takeaways

  • India, France, and Australia need to conduct an evidence-based maritime mapping exercise to identify the key issues and capacities that are available at hand.
  • There are seven pillars within India’s IPOI. France and Australia are currently co-leading one pillar each. It is important to take a step back and see what each country is doing and how this cooperation can be further strengthened.
  • While nations talk about maritime connectivity broadly, the three nations should look at model projects they can collaborate on in the Indo-Pacific region to demonstrate their ability to work together and deliver, while keeping in mind each nation’s capacity.
  • IUU fishing is a major cause for concern in the Indian Ocean region. India, France, and Australianeed to create norms for the fisheries industry.
  • Joint coast guard training could be crucial in identifying and setting standards to address human security challenges such as human trafficking and bonded labour.
  • Australia currently engages with ASEAN on a variety of maritime issues, including the ASEAN-ACT. The key question is how India and France can also effectively work with ASEAN on similar maritime
  • India, France, and Australianeed to explore the feasibility of creating standards and norms for undersea submarine cables.
  • The trilateral partners could also undertake issues of environmental security, such as marine debris and deep-sea mining.

Supply Chain Security and Technology Cooperation

Some industries are of critical importance but are also highly susceptible to supply chain disruptions, especially in light of the tensions between the United States and China. Vulnerabilities in the supply chains of critical goods were exposed in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic when the supplies of masks, personal protection equipment, and semiconductors were significantly disrupted. India, France, and Australia could pool their resources to diversify supply chains. The three countries are also uniquely placed to define international norms on data privacy and regulation.

Discussion Highlights

U.S.-China rivalry and supply chain disruption: Participants drew attention to how some critical industries are highly susceptible to supply chain disruptions, especially in the light of the tensions between the United States and China. Vulnerabilities in the supply chains of critical goods were also exposed in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic when the supplies of masks, personal protection equipment, and semiconductors were significantly disrupted. The production of these items was concentrated in China, and countries like France have subsequently worked toward decreasing their reliance on China for key industries. Apart from diversifying their supply chains away from China, countries could also look into creating favorable internal industrial policies that help reduce vulnerabilities.

High-risk sectors: Participants highlighted how disruptions in the semiconductor technology industry occurred because of U.S. sanctions on China that had second-order effects. All three countries, it was suggested, should devote resources and identify academic and other research institutions within their territories to map semiconductor supply chains in the Indo-Pacific, with the view to steadily shift production lines and reduce reliance on producers from Taiwan. Another solution is to foster greater coordination between the industry and government. Some participants pointed out that diversification of supply chains is not always the right answer. Sometimes, the solution lies in creating favorable internal industrial policies that can help reduce vulnerabilities. Either way, a serious and urgent conversation at the top level is required on and around the future of supply chains.

Approaches to data regulation and cybersecurity: The possibility of India, France, and Australia exploring legal norms to ensure cybersecurity was raised by some participants. It was suggested that nations take a proactive approach to creating cyber defense systems. Such an approach would require political willingness to make hard choices while framing data privacy and protection laws. While collaboration on data privacy legislation will be tough to implement—considering that France has to adhere to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and that India’s data privacy bill is likely to become a law soon—data transfers could prove to be the next frontier that requires regulation. Here, shared definitions of terms such as “foreign interference” and “disinformation” could be good starting points for the three countries to consider. Unless a shared definition of such terms is agreed upon, collaboration to tackle these issues will remain limited. Participants highlighted that India’s policy of creating a positive list of trusted sources for telecom and cyber goods is a policy step that Australia and France could also consider.

Cooperation between the private sector and governments: Several participants stated the importance of greater conversation and coordination between industry and government in their respective countries. For instance, Japan is attempting to resolve supply chain security issues by diversifying and investing in other nations through collaboration with the private sector. It is crucial for industry players to know the values that the government stands for, as this will drive innovation. Some participants noted the growing role played by private actors in matters of cybersecurity, such as Microsoft’s role during the SolarWinds episode. Governments need to involve such private players in discussions around cybersecurity. Another means of enabling the private sector is through start-up initiatives by the three governments, which could create a network of venture capitalists and innovators. This could grow into a hub where new technology is piloted and its deployment is funded by governments.

Scientific research and cooperation: Scientific innovation and cooperation lies upstream of major cybersecurity issues. The three trilateral partners are already collaborating on the global forum for research on key sectors such as artificial intelligence (AI). India and Australia are both a part of the French-and-Canadian-led Global Partnership on AI. Participants agreed that collaboration on space technologies could be the next frontier that India, France, and Australia could explore. Another critical area of scientific cooperation lies in green technology to fight climate change. However, critical components of solar and renewable energy production are concentrated in China, and Chinese policy has had an adverse effect on the global supply chain in these domains. Australia and France have leading research organizations that focus on photovoltaics. India could create new bilateral partnerships, which the trilateral group could bolster. Furthermore, the trilateral partners could work on fostering collaboration in the field of biotechnology between research institutes in the three countries.

Key Takeaways

Near term:

  • Governments in the three nations can create a start-up fund in close collaboration with the private sector. India and Japan have already demonstrated the capacity for the creation of a start-up bridge between the two nations, which can be replicated by the trilateral group.
  • India, France, and Australia can easily collaborate on biotechnology. India has strong research institutes, such as Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms in Bangalore, that can work with organizations in France and Australia.
  • The trilateral partners should work with the private sector to create norms for tech governance. While data privacy legislation will be tough to implement (considering France has the GDPR and India has a bill that will become law), data transfers could prove to be the next frontier that requires regulation.
  • The three countries need to think more clearly about data transfers and the potential of India joining structures such as APEC Cross-Border Privacy Rules System. This will be of critical concern in the very near future.
  • Detailed discussions about norm setting at the ITU are the need of the hour, especially as an ITU office will soon be opened in New Delhi.
  • Subsidy structures and investment maps for the private sector in the green technologies industry should be discussed.
  • Scientific collaborations through links between research institutes, university scholarships, and government initiatives can bring greater cooperation in the development of green technologies.

Long term:

  • All three countries should devote resources and identify institutions (in each country) to map semiconductor supply chains with the view to steadily shift production lines and reduce reliance on China.
  • Think tanks in the three nations could conduct a mapping exercise to track the extraction and movement of rare earth materials to suggest ways in which the supply chain can be secured.
  • As India looks at creating a blue economy policy, it can learn from other nations and collaborate with France and Australia.
  • India, France, and Australia should discuss the various issues in the supply chain for the semiconductors industry and consider ways in which an alternative foundry could be created.
  • Fostering greater coordination between industry and government through start-up initiatives could create a network of venture capitalists and innovators.
  • The trilateral partners should explore three to four leading ideas in the domain of space technologies and initiate scientific cooperation for deeper study.

This dialogue was anchored by Shibani Mehta, Shreyas Shende, Rahul Bhatia, and Tisyaketu Sirkar of Carnegie India. This summary does not reflect the views of any of the dialogue partners or organizations such as the Observer Research Foundation, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, and the National Security College at the Australian National University.