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Quasi-Alliances, Managing the Rise of China, and Domestic Politics: The US-Japan-Australia Trilateral 1991-2015

London School of Economics PhD, September 2016

Of all the changes to power and diplomacy in the Asia Pacific over the past fifteen years, perhaps one of the most intriguing and under-researched has been the gradual proliferation of a new type of security cooperation, the trilateral. As an area of research, the trilateral has fallen between the cracks of rising power debates centered around China’s rise, hegemonic stability discussions, debates on the future of the American “hub and spokes system”, and Southeast Asian community-building and regional order studies. Despite the relative paucity in research, the trilateral model has replicated itself throughout the region, popping up between allies and even between peer competitors, fulfilling a range of functions; from political and economic, as with the China-ROK-Japan Trilateral Summit; to strategic and political, as with the Australia-India-Japan trilateral.

Some are extra-regional in focus, as with the US-Japan-India Strategic Dialogue; some are primarily regional in focus, as with the US-Japan-Australia Security Dialogue; and some are primarily sub-regional in focus, as with the US-Japan-ROK model. As the past four examples show, the United States has been a particularly prominent builder of trilateral relationships, developing three trilaterals around its Asia-Pacific alliance partners. Often, it has sought to link up allies with which it already has strong bilateral ties, but who lack their own bilateral, such as Australia and Japan.

Often, as a result, the difference between bilateral and trilateral cooperation has been muddied, so much, that Desmond Ball, a prominent Australian scholar, has said:
“it is often difficult and sometimes even impossible to distinguish purely bilateral activities from the myriad of multilateral activities in which Australia and Japan are engaged, and particularly from collaborative activities undertaken as part of the respective alliance arrangements with the United States.”

This muddying of waters does not just cover what the trilaterals do, but also what the
trilaterals are, since they lack one of the primary features of alliances, a formal or informal defence commitment between two allies. Noting this, William Tow – a prominent Australian scholar of trilateralism – describes them as a “unique theoretical challenge” for the international relations scholar, demanding either a redefinition of alliances or a redefinition of security cooperation…

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