The Asia-Pacific region is undergoing dynamic power shifts and witnessing new and emerging security threats. In the midst of this dynamic, the United States has realized the potential for “mini-lateral” security cooperation, which complements the existing security arrangements in the region. In particular, the trilateral security relationship among the United States, Japan, and Australia has quickly emerged as one of the most robust “mini-lateral” relationships to facilitate regional stability and peace. The Stimson Center’s latest report US-Japan-Australia Security Cooperation: Prospects and Challenges focuses on this fast-emerging trilateral relationship among Washington, Canberra, and Tokyo.
The U.S.-Japan-Australia trilateral relationship is firmly rooted in the strong bilateral alliances that the United States enjoys with Japan and Australia. In addition, Japan-Australia security relations — which have significantly deepened over recent years — dramatically contribute to the strength of the trilateral relationship.
The strong inclination that the United States, Japan, and Australia together share in preserving and buttressing the existing regional order provides a direction and opportunity for trilateral cooperation. U.S.-Japan-Australia security relations are driven by the three countries’ desire to leverage the relationship to promote international norms and values such as democracy, respect for human rights, free trade, peaceful resolution of international disagreements, and freedom of navigation. With these shared values, the U.S.-Japan-Australia trilateral relationship seeks to serve as one of the essential building blocks for broader regional security architecture in the Asia-Pacific. The three countries have also deepened their cooperation in areas such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR), maritime security, peacekeeping and capacity building, and are exploring additional areas for cooperation including defense equipment.
Despite efforts to intensify the trilateral security cooperation among Washington, Canberra, and Tokyo, this arrangement will face some challenges moving forward. One is the management of the increasing number of stakeholders in the relationship. A notable strength of the U.S.-Japan-Australia security relationship lies in its informality. This has allowed trilateral security relations to gradually shift from a diplomatic initiative primarily focused on policy consultation to a framework for concrete security cooperation over a broad range of security issues beyond the existing bilateral alliance mechanisms. On the other hand, this informality has also limited the scope of the triad’s security cooperation to activities that focus largely on peacetime activities that do not involve the offensive use of force. The informality makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra to address more tangible security challenges in a direct manner.
A second challenge relates to the sustainability of the existence of shared uvalues or mutual interests among the three countries as the key catalysts for cooperation. Ultimately, should the outlook for the Asia-Pacific regional security environments held by the three countries noticeably diverge in the future, it will be difficult to sustain today’s positive momentum in the trilateral security relationship. This particularly relates to diverging perceptions surrounding China’s rise and each country’s response to it. Today, the three countries’ approach towards China is aligned closer than ever. However, because of the complexities in each country’s relationship with China, the three countries’ approach to China may diverge in the future.
Finally, leadership matters. For instance, although Japan-Australia security relations have by and large enjoyed bipartisan support in both countries despite the frequent change of leadership, bilateral security ties have evolved dynamically in recent years largely due to the close personal relationship between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Over the next two years, the United States and Australia will undergo national elections. In Japan, even though Prime Minister Abe technically does not have to face elections until 2018, he may be pressured to go to the polls if his domestic popularity declines. No one knows how leadership fluctuations in the three countries will impact the momentum of trilateral security cooperation.
Despite these challenges, the security relationship among Canberra, Tokyo, and Washington represents one of the most promising policy initiatives currently operating in the Asia-Pacific region. Its development and impact to date have already exceeded many expectations. The U.S.-Japan-Australia trilateral relationship is the most successful example of an informal security arrangement in the Asia Pacific that goes beyond the traditional “hub-and-spokes” U.S. alliance system. This arrangement has already created a distinct habit of mini-lateral cooperation among the three countries. If the three countries can sustain positive momentum, this framework has them potential to evolve into a key component of a new security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region.