The chiefs of the British and U.S. navies and the chief of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force met at the Pentagon on October 20 to conduct staff talks and sign an unprecedented trilateral cooperation agreement. The agreement cements the close working relationship all three navies already have and commits them to closer cooperation, as well as increased exercises and joint patrols in the future. The agreement cites “shared national interests” and a need to deal more effectively with an increasingly globalized world to ensure the free flow of commerce and access to the maritime commons.
While not a new defense treaty or obligation, the agreement sets forth a roadmap for future cooperative activities to achieve “mutually desired strategic effects.” There are nevertheless important limitations to what the three navies can do together unilaterally without higher political approval from their respective governments. That means that, as the U.S. Navy news release recognized, this agreement’s value is largely symbolic for now, but may presage substantial future efforts by the three navies to ensure peacetime global maritime freedom and access while enhancing their collective decisive combat advantage to deter potential threats. The agreement is not region-specific, as the three nations already cooperate in regions as diverse as East Africa, Europe, and the Western Pacific, but the dual emphasis on protecting free maritime commerce and mutually reinforcing high-end combat capabilities implies new cooperation will have a heavy focus on the Western Pacific and the South China Sea.
This new agreement was signed at the service level, meaning it does not have the force of a formal treaty, and does not impose new defense requirements on the three countries, which already share alliance structures. The United States and Great Britain are treaty allies through NATO and have close defense and intelligence sharing ties (the “special relationship”) but do not have a formal bilateral defense obligation. Japan and the United States, on the other hand, have both a close defense relationship and formal bilateral defense obligations through the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.
Capability Development and Integration
The three navies share several important joint development and procurement projects. For example, all three countries are procuring versions of the F-35 fighter and attack aircraft, and the U.S. and Japan are jointly developing the SM-3 Ballistic Missile Defense program.
Undersecretary of the Navy Janine Davidson recently highlighted areas of U.S.-U.K. cooperation as part of the U.S. “third offset” effort to maintain a decisive military advantage over “pacing competitors” like China. A U.K. exercise that the United States participates in, Unmanned Warrior, tests maritime unmanned and autonomous systems, which is a major area of development for the U.S. Navy. Additionally, while British pilots are regularly embedded as part of U.S. squadrons flying off American aircraft carriers, U.S. Marine squadrons may deploy on the U.K.’s new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers in the future.
All three navies also already field advanced phased-array air defense radars as well as specialized data-links that allow the three navies to “see” each other’s radar pictures. The U.S. Navy is working on advanced fire-control networks as part of its “distributed lethality” concept that allow ships and aircraft not merely to “see” each other’s radar picture, but to actually fire missiles off of that shared data. While just a U.S. program for now, if shared in the future to incorporate British and Japanese ships and aircraft, it would dramatically expand the combat capability of a multinational force.
One of the U.S.’s most important tools in the Western Pacific has been the use of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to assert maritime rights against countries that make excessive or improper claims under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, such as the USS Decatur’s recent challenge of Chinese territorial baselines drawn around the Paracel Islands, which the U.S. does not recognize. But the U.S. Navy does not decide when to conduct FONOPS on its own; such operations require approval from the Department of Defense, and often involve coordination and approvals from the Department of State or White House.
For its part, Japan has already conducted exercises with the United States in the South China Sea. In response, China warned Japan against further involvement in the region. Nevertheless, Japan’s defense minister pledged to increase joint patrols and exercises with the United States, though the head of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force later ruled out conducting FONOPs in the South China Sea, with or without the United States.
The U.K. strongly supported adherence to the outcome of the Philippines’ UNCLOS arbitration case, and joined the EU declaration on the final ruling. But the Royal Navy does not conduct FONOPs like the United States, nor even keep a permanent presence in the Western Pacific, though France is urging EU nations to keep a coordinated, visible presence there. The Royal Navy nonetheless does make periodic deployments to the Pacific, participates in the biennial U.S.-sponsored Rim of the Pacific exercise, and became an observer member of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium this year.
Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, routinely discusses Pacific security in terms of an architecture based on shared “norms, standards, rules, and laws.” He believes that “dubious” behavior in the South China Sea could threaten the political stability that security architecture delivers, and potentially even the economic security that it enables. China’s expansive claims to territory and rights, harassment of other nations’ fishing vessels, and construction of dual-use bases on contested features, have particularly stoked concerns about regional stability and access.
The trilateral agreement’s emphasis on the free flow of commerce and trade, along with frequent assertions by U.S. officials and officers on the South China Sea’s economic importance, makes the region an obvious focus for future cooperative efforts. Increasing presence in the region both individually and collectively through multinational exercises or patrols would help assert norms of maritime freedom-of-action, while increasing their combat interoperability and effectiveness would provide a credible deterrent against any power that might threaten the region’s maritime trade, rights, and access.