U.S.-Japan-Australia: A Trilateral With Purpose? (Page 2 of 2)

The Joint Statement strikes the correct balance and tone on these two disputes. For example, on the East China Sea, the three allies clearly – and rightly – side with Tokyo’s sustained appeal that China not be allowed to forcibly change the status quo. However, the statement also commits Japan (as well as China) to “avoid miscalculations or accidents” – which is an integral aspect of U.S. and Australian policy on finding a diplomatic resolution. The statement also refrains from taking a stance on the sovereignty of the islands – another long-held position of Washington and Canberra. Moreover, the statement does not explicitly endorse Japan’s administration of the islands – despite the implicit mention of the “status quo.” These nuances are important to note and no doubt have been carefully calibrated and negotiated between the three sides. 

The Washington-Tokyo-Canberra partnership has also been bolstered by an increased focus on defense cooperation. As part of the TSD, the Defense Ministers have met on three occasions since 2007, with the most recent meeting happening this past June on the sidelines on the Shangri-La Dialogue. During this summit, all sides agreed to strengthen trilateral cooperative efforts, through information sharing and joint military training and exercise coordination. The defense chiefs also paved the way for the Foreign Ministers meeting with discussions on protecting the “freedom of navigation and maritime security in the region’s sea lanes.”

The TSD continues to gain steam for a number of reasons. First, as noted earlier, the failure of a Japan-U.S.-Korea trilateral has freed up time for senior officials in Washington and Tokyo to buy into the process. A second driver has been the diplomatic triangulation between the three sides that has been furthered by Japan’s entry into Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the U.S. and Japan, the TSD has been given more teeth by a combination of factors: the U.S. rebalance, the return to power of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, and the election of the Liberal-National coalition in Australia.   

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Yet despite this opportunity, the TSD still faces some significant hurdles. First and foremost, the Dialogue will be ineffective if it cannot shake the perception – whether accurate or not – that it is a tool to contain Beijing. All TSD states remain focused on engaging with China and understand that encirclement would be counterproductive. While the TSD cannot ignore China’s assertive posture over its maritime disputes, it also needs to walk a tightrope so as not to isolate Beijing. This is especially important in light of Australia’s goals of greater economic engagement with China.

A second obstacle will be the ability of the TSD to move beyond rhetoric and engage in comprehensive and operational cooperation. Example could include greater information and risk assessment exchanges on regional threats. The TSD can also improve operationalization on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Indeed, focusing the TSD on non-traditional security areas will be crucial not only in trust building but should also help soothe Chinese concerns about the intentions of the trilateral.

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