Australia and Japan will have an opportunity this week to take their coordination on regional strategy to the next level. While much of their discussions will be about China, by working together, they should also seize the chance to convey messages to the US more forcefully.
Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong are to meet with their American counterparts in Washington on Tuesday and then with their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo on Friday. The American and Japanese defense and foreign affairs secretaries will then meet together as well early next month.
Individually, Australian and Japanese voices carry considerable sway in the halls of power in Washington, particularly with the current administration of US President Joe Biden.
It is logical, then, to assume that a chorus of top-tier allies delivering a common message about the nature or substance of America's engagement in and with Asia will be much more likely to hit home.
Given America's growing reliance on its two most committed regional allies, Australia and Japan have never been better placed to aggregate their influence and advance their shared interests in Washington with a greater unity of purpose.
Ensuring these perspectives are not only heard in Washington but also absorbed will be key to the success of all three countries' long-term visions for Asia.
Indeed, deepening trilateral coordination with the US was a key driver behind the recent update to the Australia-Japan Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, the first since 2007.
In the most headline-grabbing development to come out of the update, Japan and Australia agreed to seek bilateral consultations in the event of regional contingencies. This language is reminiscent of that found in the text of the ANZUS Treaty between Australia and the US and reflects the deep trust between Canberra and Tokyo on matters of regional strategy.
Equally important, the declaration states that the two countries will share assessments of regional strategic trends more frequently and in greater detail, including about China's military capabilities, regional influence and strategic intentions. Tokyo and Canberra will almost certainly be exchanging similar assessments of the US too.
Of course, China's disruptive and at times coercive regional behavior has been a key driver behind the development of the Japan-Australia bilateral relationship over the last decade. But assuming Beijing alone motivated these closer ties does not fully capture shared concerns about the future of the regional order.
The Australia-Japan convergence has also been propelled by mutual concern over the capacity of the US to deliver on its stated commitments to Asia. It is no surprise that Tokyo and Canberra have frequently turned to each other in the absence of American leadership and amid questions over Washington's ability to prioritize the Indo-Pacific region above competing global demands.
In fact, Australia and Japan often agree on optimal approaches to regional challenges in ways that the US does not. And indeed, Tokyo and Canberra have been proactively seeking each other out for cooperation, regardless of US involvement, at an increasing rate.
The two see eye-to-eye on the need to work from the inside of emerging regional institutions and groupings, whether sponsored by China, Southeast Asian partners or others. For Japan and Australia, shaping the future of the Indo-Pacific requires participation, not only preservation.
The record suggests that the same cannot always be said of the US.
Take regional trade architecture, for instance. Australia and Japan have signed up for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the Biden administration's solution to meeting regional demands for a US regional trade initiative while skirting protectionist sentiments at home, and have said the right things about its potential benefits.
But both also recognize the IPEF's limitations and continue to press Washington on the benefits of working from inside existing arrangements, like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, to shape the rules of the road.
Australian and Japanese officials also agree that a high-intensity conflict over Taiwan should not be the sole focus of collective military planning.
Granted, they have explored joint operational planning for a Taiwan contingency with the US over the last 18 months and are clearly concerned about the risk of Beijing using force to achieve its goals. But to many in Canberra and Tokyo, the future of the regional strategic order does not hinge on Taiwan alone.
Defense policymakers in both capitals are unsure whether their counterparts in Washington worry enough about lower-level, gray-zone crises in regional flashpoints like the South China Sea that could spiral out of control, particularly in the absence of joint planning. It is these sorts of contingencies, as much as developments around Taiwan, that Australia and Japan are preparing for, independently or otherwise.
The bottom line is that a successful strategy for the Indo-Pacific will rely on building a truly collective approach between Australia, Japan and the US with much greater input from these junior allies on their own terms. Doing so requires that Canberra and Tokyo speak up with a common purpose.
With the top foreign policy officials from all three countries meeting face-to-face over the next six weeks, now is the perfect time for Australia and Japan to find a single voice.