Asia Minute: Trilateral Power in Indo Pacific

Jul 1, 2019

President Donald J. Trump participates in a group photo during G20 Cultural Program at the Osaka Geihinkan with fellow leaders attending G20 Japan Summit Friday, June 28, 2019, in Osaka, Japan.
Credit Tia Dufour / Official White House Photo

President Trump’s handshake meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Demilitarized Zone was one of the biggest photo opportunities of his Asian trip. But a much quieter gathering at the G20 meeting carried its own symbolism.

Diplomatic gatherings often come in two flavors: multilateral (with a number of attendees) and bi-laterals (with two parties).

Tri-lateral meetings, a group of three, are more unusual.

For the second year in a row at the G-20, the United States, Japan and India held discussions together — along with a carefully arranged, intentional photo opportunity complete with a three-way fist bump.

Part of the intended audience — China.

An administration official speaking on background told the White House pool reporter at the event that, quote, “all three countries promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” Adding that the topics of the three-way discussion included “strong naval cooperation.”

It was about seven weeks ago that ships from the United States, Japan and India held their first joint naval exercise in the South China Sea – where territorial boundaries are a point of disagreement, to put it mildly.

The Philippines also contributed a patrol vessel to the maneuvers — which at the time the U.S. Navy said were to “promote maritime cooperation throughout a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

That phrasing of the “Indo-Pacific” has become the standard regional language for some time now, including the name of the command structure on O’ahu that oversees the entire area.

It’s been a little more than a year since the Trump Administration changed the term “Pacific Command” or “PACOM” to the “U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.”