Was the U.S.-Japan-Australia “Semi-Alliance” an Illusion?

By Ryoko Kato —

Secretary of State John Kerry greets Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop of Australia before the Trilateral Strategy Dialogue meeting on July 25, 2016. Source: State Department's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Secretary of State John Kerry greets Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop of Australia before the Trilateral Strategy Dialogue meeting on July 25, 2016. Source: State Department’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The last few months have been filled with discontent for security experts in Japan eager to strengthen defense cooperation with Australia and the United States. In late April, the Japanese government was surprised when its coalition with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries lost a bid to the French to build submarines for Australia. An award-winning journalist commented that the failed deal only proved to the Japanese defense community, “how shallow that U.S.-Japan-Australia facade is – that semi-alliance, just how easily shattered that was.”

Does this setback signal that the U.S.-Japan-Australia strategic partnership, once labelled informally as a “semi-alliance” by some in the media, is now dormant? On the contrary, the non-binding nature of this trilateral relationship provides key advantages to each party.

The trilateral cooperation framework started to take shape when the Trilateral Strategy Dialogue (TSD) was established in 2002 to reinvigorate the U.S. alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan-Australia ties were formalized in 2007 with a joint declaration on security cooperation and upgraded recently to a Special Strategic Partnership, with the scope of cooperation having expanded from information sharing to acquisition and cross serving to the non-security sphere, such as free trade. With this third leg of the triangle strengthened, the U.S.-Japan-Australian TSD is said to be the most developed and substantial of the various trilateral groups involving the United States. Most recently, the foreign ministers of the three states held a TSD on July 25 to reemphasize the criticality of this policy coordination platform and agreed to bolster cooperation in some key strategic and economic areas. The three leaders also strongly urged China to abide by the recent decision made by the arbitral tribunal in the South China Sea case. The move was criticized by the Chinese foreign minister as causing “damage” to regional stability.

In discussing the utility of the U.S.-Japan-Australian partnership, it is important to understand the parameters for trilateral defense cooperation. After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government passed a series of defense policy reforms last year, including a reinterpretation of the constitution to exercise “limited collective self-defense” with countries like Australia and the United States, some media commentaries have portrayed the trilateral partnership as a “semi-“ or “quasi-alliance”. However, while trilateral defense cooperation has become increasingly robust, this is not a treaty alliance based on a formal collective security arrangement.

The trilateral partnership has instead focused on bringing together defense capabilities to enhance the interoperability of the three militaries, as was demonstrated by the most recent TSD meeting. This enables cooperation in countering various threats and serves as a foundation for a broader regional security structure in the Asia-Pacific region based on shared strategic visions and emphasis on an international liberal order. Combined with the non-military agenda, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) and economic partnerships, the trilateral framework has bolstered efficiency in dealing with increasingly fluid international threats. The burden-sharing nature of the partnership also eases budgetary challenges common to all members in crucial, yet costly, areas of cooperation, such as capacity building for the littoral states in Southeast Asia. Just to list a few, the three states have worked closely in Australia’s Exercise Harii Hamutuk designed to build Timor-Leste’s security capacity, the search for Malaysia’s missing aircraft MH370, as well as various trilateral joint military exercises, including the  naval training Exercise Talisban Sabre held every two years, long-standing air force drill Exercise Corp North, and HA/DR training Operations Christmas Drop.

The foremost advantages of the U.S.-Japan-Australia trilateral relationship hinge on this capability-based framework. This form of collaboration grants Australia discretion in its policies towards China, its largest trading partner, and eases pressure over making a zero-sum choice between the United States or China. This consortium of capabilities — rather than formation of a treaty alliance — also prevents excessive provocation against China and unnecessary domestic resistance from groups that include business communities in Canberra and pacifists in Tokyo. In addition, the informality serves the United States well by deflecting inaccurate Chinese allegations that U.S. alliances in Asia are somehow seeking to contain China.

While the failure to reach a submarines agreement was an undeniable setback, the strategic logic of closer trilateral cooperation remains robust. The leaders of the United States, Japan, and Australia should continue to build a strong framework for this partnership based fundamentally on shared values. As democracies committed to upholding international rules and norms, Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra can continue to shape the regional order in the Asia-Pacific region in areas such as maritime security and capacity building utilizing the TSD.

The United States, Japan, and Australia have all learned lessons from the submarines case — Japan’s first major competitive defense export outing abroad. Some strategic and economic divergences among the three governments will persist, because even formal alliances do not control the actions of democratic governments on individual policy matters. That being noted, the overlap of strategic rationale outweighs such divergences and should be sufficient to maintain the current form of trilateral relationship institutionalized by the TSD as the most effective means of cooperation. While not a formal treaty alliance, the defense partnership of the three states is real and stands to evolve, but that will require even closer coordination between the three states in light of rapid changes in the Asia-Pacific security environment.

Ms. Ryoko Kato is a researcher with the Japan Chair at CSIS. She is also a master’s student in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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