A Proposal for US-Japan-UK Trilateral Cooperation

Beyond the Pacific: A Proposal for US-Japan-UK Trilateral Cooperation

(Introduction to UK-Japan-US Trilateral Proposal)

CSIS Issues and Insights, March 2013


This posting proposes a new strategic trilateral relationship between the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom. These three powers constitute two of the most powerful defense alliances in the international system, and the three share an increasing number of common security concerns. The next three posts are dedicated to some areas where the three might cooperate, namely, cyber, Afghanistan, and biosecurity.


The United States has a long history of developing and maintaining a network of alliances around the globe. Most, if not all, date back to the post-war period and find their genesis in stabilizing the postwar international system and in hedging against Soviet expansionism and the onset of the Cold War. As time has seen these original functions wither, the US alliance system has undergone bouts of regeneration and redefinition, as Washington and its allies have seen benefits in maintaining security ties.

The current global order is undergoing a period of intense transition which is taking place in a number of ways. First, the concentration of global economic and political power is moving away from the West towards Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRIC), particularly the latter two states as rising powers. While there are incredible benefits to humanity over the shift of this capital, questions over global governance institutions and their transformation, as well as shifts in military power, add an element of instability to the global system. Second, new technologies and social media are transforming politics and the power of subnational actors. Third, the revolution in transportation and shipping technologies and their associated costs from the 1960s onward, and their computerization and automation, have made the global economy a maritime-based one. This brings actors into closer contact, both at the state and nonstate level.

The old alliance structures that linked narrow US security objectives to global security concerns – such as NATO in the Atlantic and the US ‘hub and spokes’ system in the Pacific – require updates and in some cases, augmentation. This is not a particularly new observation: since the end of the Cold War a succession of US policymakers have made changes to the old alliance structure, implementing new ad hoc structures – such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the US-Japan trilateral relationships with Australia, South Korea, and more recently, India. In a sense, US policy-makers are reacting to the fluid state of global politics, by remolding US security institutions at home and abroad.

Extra-regional Alliance-building

Alliances have traditionally been regional, with bilateral and multilateral relationships developing around local threat perceptions. Up until the end of the Cold War, the US alliance system fell easily into this framework, with the exception of SEATO, which included European states in what was a predominantly Asian-focused alliance. Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, US policymakers began to re-envision the alliance system for the newly conceived Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). The success of the first Iraq War in 1991 had indicated that the US allies were willing and able to operate extra-regionally to help with US global security objectives. This was further amplified by the involvement of Asia Pacific allies in Operation Enduring Freedom and reconstruction activities in Iraq. The fact that US Department of Defense planners could at times request and anticipate troop contributions from Turkey, South Korea, Japan, Mongolia, the UK, and Denmark among others is a testament to this trend.

It is necessary to examine the trilateral structure and look at the benefits of expanding it from a regionally oriented body to a globally oriented structure. The trilateral as a type of alliance structure is not an entirely new one, but its current incarnation dates to the post-9/11 period, when the US sought new partnerships in its campaign on the GWOT and mechanisms for added stability in the Asia Pacific. The US-Japan-Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD) is arguably the most advanced example of a trilateral developed in recent times.[1] Initiated in sub-cabinet level talks in 2002, it was then upgraded to ‘strategic dialogue’ level in May 2005 under the Bush Administration, and has been maintained by the Obama administration under the auspices of the US ‘rebalancing’ to the region. Trilateral conversations also exist between the US, Japan, and South Korea, as well as the US, Japan, and India.

Perhaps, it is now time for the US, Japan and UK to develop a trilateral dialogue. The trilateral structure has already found to be a flexible one, bringing with it a level of adaptability not found in larger alliance structures, where consensus rules often act as a break on alliance adaption. Given the range of common security concerns, military interoperability, and developed alliance relationships, the UK and Japan are suited to a global trilateral strategy forum (TSF). The core functions of a US-Japan-UK trilateral strategy forum would be to more efficiently coordinate the efforts of each in nontraditional areas of security. While there are a multitude of areas for possible cooperation between the three, the authors of this paper have focused on three areas, considered to be ‘low-hanging fruit’ and include cybersecurity, stabilization, and biosecurity. The following three posts argue that track 1.5 dialogues in these three areas could lead to close cooperation between the various government agencies responsible for these areas.

While the development of US-Japan-UK activities seems to run against the ‘tyranny of geography’, this is no longer as true as it once was. First, the rules of geography are lessening, with maritime trade and the centrality of South Asia spanning the once-formidable distances. The Gulf of Aden and Afghanistan may be far from London, Tokyo, and Washinton, but both were found to be central to the security of all three.  Second, geography as a concept is less useful in a number of key security areas. These postings for example considers biosecurity and cybersecurity, in which geography plays little or no part. Such a grouping could prove an essential tool in the security objectives of the United States and its allies.

To read the original version of this chapter, please click here.

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