For all the criticisms of the Obama administration’s “rebalance” to the Asia–Pacific, one key achievement has been overlooked. In recent years, there’s been a stronger networking of US alliances in the region.  

Take the trilateral relationship between the United States, Australia, and Japan. It remains the gold standard for Washington’s efforts at networking alliances in the region. The US–Japan–Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD) was first launched in 2002 at the working level. It was then elevated to the foreign minister level in 2009 and has been complemented by ad-hoc trilateral meetings between defence ministers. The TSD provides a unique opportunity to connect the United States' two critical alliances in the Asia–Pacific and look for common synergies. Indeed, the trilateral efforts are complementing the existing “2+2” meetings that have been taking places for the past several years between Japan and Australia.

The TSD was taken to the next level this past November as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott hosted US President Barack Obama and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a trilateral leaders summit on the sidelines of the G20 summit held in Brisbane. During the meeting, the three sides agreed to enhance cooperation on a wide range of issues, including combating the Islamic State, the crisis in Ukraine, and the Ebola virus.

The three leaders also “expressed their firm commitment to deepen the already strong security and defence cooperation.” More pointedly towards Beijing, the group agreed to hold more trilateral military exercises and help to build more maritime security capacity in the region. Finally, with an eye towards Beijing’s posture in the East and South China Sea disputes, the three agreed to ensure “the freedom of navigation and over-flight and the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in accordance with international law, including through legal mechanisms such as arbitration.”

The trilateral meeting at the G20 came only one week after a landmark summit between Japan’s Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, held on the margins of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Beijing. While the meeting, and the statement agreed to beforehand, lacked any significant breakthrough for the strained bilateral relationship, it was an important first step towards slowly rebuilding confidence between Tokyo and Beijing. If ties continue to improve between Japan and China, there will be less currency paid to the Chinese notion that the TSD is a US tool aimed at constraining Beijing.

The TSD has been focusing on a two pillar approach that prioritises increased economic integration in the Asia–Pacific along with regional stability. The economic side has been bolstered by this year’s conclusion of the long-running negotiations between Tokyo and Canberra on a bilateral Free Trade Agreement. Meanwhile, despite tough negotiations, a finalised Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement — which includes all three states — would further promote US–Japan led economic integration in the region. 

On the security side, the trilateral relationship is also moving at a quick pace. The TSD has become increasingly relevant to the dynamic security environment surrounding Japan and Australia, especially with regard to maritime security. Achieving consensus on issues such as international terrorism or North Korea never was a hurdle for the three states. But the trilateral relationship is demonstrating value in light of enhanced US security engagement in the region alongside increasing Chinese assertiveness in the maritime domain.

While previous statements delicately approached Beijing, this past October’s ministerial 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.”

Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra similarly emphasised the importance of international law with regard to the South China Sea dispute: “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.”

Critics of a trilateral approach say it seeks to encircle China. Indeed, Beijing spurned the last TSD statement cautioning 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 the reality is that maritime security is one of the linchpins for this trilateral relationship, which is spread across thousands of miles of ocean. Admittedly, it would be counterproductive to direct the TSD as a tool to deter China. Yet, at the same point, there would be scant effectiveness of the TSD if all of the parties simply dodged anything but a benign statement on the key maritime security issues in their own backyard while detailing comprehensive steps in regions further afield.

Robust bilateral relationships

The trilateral relationship is strengthened at its core by developments in the respective bilateral alliances and partnerships. In Japan, there have been significant and much-discussed security and defence reforms due to Tokyo’s changing regional threat perceptions. Chief among these changes include: the creation of a centralised National Security Council, the passage of a new secrets bill, a first-ever National Security Strategy, revised National Defence Program Guidelines, a relaxation on arms exports, and a reinterpretation of Japan’s prior self-moratorium on its constitutional right to collective self-defence.

The United States has long supported a more “normal” Japanese security posture and is largely supportive of Abe’s reforms. Indeed, earlier this year, outgoing US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was openly enthusiastic about the change towards permitting collective self-defence: “The United States recognises Japan’s long-standing commitment to regional and global peace and stability and we welcome Japan’s efforts to play a more proactive role in the Alliance, including by re-examining the interpretation of its Constitution relating to the right of collective self-defence.”

In addition to Japan’s security reforms, the US–Japan alliance has also been strengthened in the past year by an agreement on the long standing issue of a finding a replacement facility for the US marines located in Futenma, Okinawa. Moreover, the two allies also continue to revise their bilateral defense guidelines to better reflect the current security environment.

Similarly, Washington and Canberra also appear in sync more than any time in the past decade. The US marine base in Darwin and continued close cooperation in the intelligence community on a range of issues, including Islamic extremism, have demonstrated the success of the bilateral alliance. Moreover, Canberra was one of the first to join President Obama’s coalition to degrade and destroy the Islamic State terror group in the Middle East.

On the Japan–Australia side, the security relationship continues to grow. Shinzo Abe’s visit to Australia last July highlighted the strengthening of traditionally solid ties between Tokyo and Canberra. In addition to heralding the new bilateral free trade agreement, another important pact concluded was on the joint development and transfer of defence equipment. Indeed, one of the key deliverables from Abe’s visit was the announcement of the Agreement Concerning the Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology. The deal will enhance cooperation between Australia and Japan through joint research, development, and production of defence equipment and technology.

Japan’s strengthened defense relationship with Australia comes amidst a year of several important changes to Tokyo’s defence and security policies, including a lifting of a ban on Japan’s export of defence equipment earlier this year. Since that time, the Abe government entered into a similar defence cooperation agreement with the United Kingdom and has enhanced defence ties with other key partners such as France and Turkey. These emerging defence relationships complement Japan’s longstanding relationship and cooperation with the United States.

The equipment and technology deal will also build upon growing security ties between Japan and Australia. Both sides have already inked an Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) as well as an information-sharing pact. Tokyo and Canberra also have been actively stepping up trilateral cooperation with the United States. The trilateral with Washington is becoming the most important multilateral quasi-alliance in the region, especially in light of the persistent failure to gain traction on a Japan–US–South Korea trilateral.

Defence trade between Canberra and Tokyo had been very limited prior to Japan’s lifting of the export ban earlier this year. This new flexibility, complemented by the defence agreement, should significantly increase defence trade as evidenced by Australia’s nearly finalised purchase of Japanese Soryu-class submarines as well as submarine technology. Tokyo is also interested in Australian developed radar technology.

India and the quadrilateral?

India has long been courted by Abe. After all, Tokyo sees a partnership with New Delhi as a natural hedge against Beijing and also potential outgrowth from its more narrow view of security alliances dominated by Washington. As Abe noted on the eve of his election in December 2012: “I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific. I am prepared to invest, to the greatest possible extent, Japan’s capabilities in this security diamond.”

This sentiment built upon Abe’s intentions during his first administration, when then foreign minister Taro Aso called for an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” that transcended the Pacific Ocean and connected Japan to India and South Asia.   

Institutionalising this vision in a tangible way, however, has been challenging. Despite its considerable wariness of Beijing’s hegemonic intentions in Asia, India is loath to overtly deviate from its traditional strategy of non-alignment. Moreover, previous attempts to create a meaningful quadrilateral dialogue between Australia, Japan, the United States, and India have failed due a lack of consensus on what New Delhi’s inclusion would represent to Beijing.

Currently, the TSD is sharpening focus on security issues and not so subtly pointing out China’s attempts to coercively change the status quo around the Senkaku Islands. Bringing India into the fold, despite the hurdles, is appealing because there seems to be an opportune moment now with a change of leadership in Australia which is less friendly to China.  Indeed, it was partially due to former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (who is fluent in Mandarin) that India was excluded from the potential quadrilateral.

There are signs now that both India and Australia are ready to patch up past differences on the idea of a quadrilateral alliance. Indeed, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was critical of Rudd’s decision in 2010 to pull out of the quadrilateral and has recently indicated interest in kick-starting these talks. While Rudd was cautious not to disturb economic ties with Beijing, Abbott on the other hand has struck out hard at China’s aggressive moves in the East and South China Seas.

Notably, the Abbott government has called Japan its “best friend in Asia” and also spurned Beijing publicly for its unilateral imposition of an Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea last November. India also seems more inclined to join such a pact as a result of rapidly enhanced security ties with Japan. Indeed, during Abe’s visit to India earlier this year, New Delhi finally relented to Tokyo’s pressure to allow Japan's Self-Defence Force to participate in the annual Malabar naval exercises that the Indian and US navies undertake in the Indian Ocean.   

The Trilateral going forward

There are a number of areas through which the trilateral relationship can evolve to help enhance this relationship to a true gold standard trilateral for years to come. First, the three sides need to focus on supporting and building up the regional security architecture — specifically, the East Asia Summit, the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus. Similarly, on the economic side, Canberra, Washington, and Tokyo need to push for a quick conclusion of the TPP and its continued convergence with the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation. Aside from institutions, the trilateral relationship can focus more on operations and enhance the current joint training activities including the trilateral maritime exercises. Attached to this, is the need for improved interoperability. Japan and Australia are already taking the right steps with the new defence agreement on technology, along with the bilateral ACSA and the Information Security Agreements.

A third area for the trilateral partnership is continuing to build up capacity in South-East Asia — especially in the domain of maritime security. Tokyo has been vocal against Chinese provocations in the South China Sea and has increasingly offered support, via capacity building and training, to South-East Asian disputants including the Philippines and Vietnam. Indeed, earlier this year at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Myanmar, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida announced Japan’s plans to provide Vietnam with six older vessels which will help Hanoi’s maritime defence capabilities. Tokyo also dispatched three naval vessels to visit Vietnamese ports last year and signed a pact on maritime security this past March, pledging more visits, capacity building and human resource development.

But while there is a geo-strategic angle to joint-maritime security work, there is also a potential for the US–Japan–Australia partnership to focus on soft security issues such as counter-piracy in South-East Asia and migrant smuggling. Another non-traditional area of security that remains a low-hanging fruit is cooperation in areas s such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Recall that all three sides supported the Philippines after typhoon Haiyan in late 2013. The upshot of all this is that the trilateral relationship shows the best way to evolve the rebalance and the hub-and-spoke system to a more integrated and networked region in the future.