Effective trilateral cooperation is never a simple endeavor. Indeed, achieving a worthwhile set of common strategic objectives is difficult enough between two states, let alone throwing a third in – even if it is a likeminded ally. Washington’s three most important allies in the Asia-Pacific are Japan, South Korea and Australia. Attempts to forge a trilateral partnership between the U.S. and its two East Asian allies has been scuttled repeatedly over the years due to sniping between Tokyo and Seoul over history and differing strategic goals.
But the futility of comprehensive alignment with Japan and South Korea has opened the diplomatic capital for another key trilateral – Tokyo, Canberra and Washington – that both suffers and benefits from its geographic disparity. The U.S.-Japan-Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD) was first launched in 2002 at the bureaucratic level and was then elevated to the foreign minister level in 2006. After a relatively nondescript meeting in 2009, the three ministers met for the third TSD earlier this month in Bali on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Ministerial summit.
This year’s TSD Joint Statement contained the usual diplomatic reaffirmations of mutual support for objectives regarding disarming Syria’s chemical weapons as well as the next round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program. The ministers also agreed to condemn “North Korea’s continued development of its nuclear and missile programs and proliferation activities” and the U.S. and Australia even agreed to include the abduction issue as an area of concern, to satisfy Japan.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But achieving consensus on Syria, Iran and North Korea has never been a hurdle for the TSD. The elephant in the room has been and always will be China. While previous Statements delicately approached Beijing’s role, this month’s meeting produced a less nuanced message. With regard to strained Japan-China ties over the Senkaku islands, the TSD noted: “Ministers opposed any coercive or unilateral actions that could change the status quo in the East China Sea. They underlined the importance of efforts to reduce tensions and to avoid miscalculations or accidents in the East China Sea, including by improving marine communications.”
The three ministers also called out China’s intransigence in the South China Sea: “The ministers affirmed the importance of peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. They called on claimants to refrain from actions that could increase tensions, to clarify and pursue claims in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and for ASEAN and China to agree on a meaningful Code of Conduct.”
The TSD statement predictably received a quick retort from Beijing, which warned the group not “to interfere in territorial disputes, otherwise it will only make the problems more complicated and harm the interests of all parties.” But while some have critiqued the TSD for taking an adversarial posture against China, the reality is that maritime security is one of the linchpins for this trilateral relationship, which extends across thousands of miles of ocean. Admittedly it would be counterproductive to direct the TSD as a tool to deter China. Still, there would be little effectiveness to a trilateral that simply dodged anything but a vanilla statement on the key maritime security issues in their own backyard while detailing comprehensive steps in regions further afield such as Iran and Syria.