The United States and Japan in Multilateral Asia: Forging Relations and Binding Ties

Bilateral relations between the world’s sole superpower, the United States of America (US, USA), and the world’s third-largest economic power, the East Asian powerhouse of Japan, are premised on forging healthy relations and binding with the rest of Asia impeccably. This would involve deepening existing ties and forging new ones with the many notable actors professing to vital stakes and vested interests across the length and breadth of the world’s largest continent, as also the Indo-Pacific region (IPR). As on date, owing to evident differings and conflictual circumstances between countries such as Japan and South Korea, Washington D. C. is compelled to calculate its forays in Asia while aspiring for long-term amicability between belligerent countries. However, this factor has not stopped Washington from establishing, entertaining, and evolving its mini/multi-lateral relationships in Asia, especially in the eastern geography of the continent. The United States has implemented a ‘Hub-and-Spokes’ alliance system in the security environs of the Asia-Pacific, with Japan a critical, if not the most critical, ‘spoke’ in this system (see Figure 1 below).

Fig. 1  The US ‘Hub-and-Spokes’ Arrangement in Asia. Source:  The ASEAN Post

America and Japan are not just involved bilaterally, but have enforced an effective multilateral impression leading to having exercised their geopolitical influence across Asia. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, better known as the QUAD) is an initiative of four democracies, which was the brainchild of Japan in the mid-2000s, with pressing commonalities and engaging objectives in the Indo-Pacific in particular. Its four member democracies are the US, Japan, Australia, and India. It was heralded in 2007 courtesy promptings from Japan about the state of maritime security and apprehensions about the upsetting rise of a determined emerging superpower in the Peoples’ Republic of China, despite having initially focussed on disaster relief in the high seas (The Indian Ocean tsunami, December 2004). Of late, the QUAD has been given a much-needed impetus with the as-yet unstructured grouping having adopted a sole security motive to offset the rise of an increasingly influential, overbearing, and overpowering China. A first-ever in-person meeting was organised between its members in Washington D. C., with the capital of the United States signifying just how far the QUAD has come in terms of sustained minilateral activism. This in-person meeting has followed meetings between senior-level officials such as the respective foreign ministers of the four partner countries.

The US and Japan have also extensively associated with Southeast Asia as far as the political, geopolitical, economic, geoeconomic, security, and geostrategic situations of the region are concerned. The US remains on exceedingly and improvingly good terms with South China Sea countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore – which are the four major countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or the ASEAN. These relationships are centred upon the military, and especially maritime-military, domain given that Southeast Asia largely involves routine and menacing Chinese infringements in the form of the brazen excursions of its many maritime entities such as the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). An interest in Southeast Asia for Tokyo and Washington caters to a diverse array of initiations and involvement ranging from economic and trade relations to investments and financial outlays for very specific purposes. Timely and responsive military assistance in the form of equipment donations and technology transfers have also become a staple of the US and Japan’s association with Southeast Asian countries. A wary approach is pursued in the perplexing domain of the South and East China Seas with freedom of navigation considered to be an imperative of the vast maritime-naval forces deployed by Washington and Tokyo.

The United States was one of the first Dialogue Partners of the ASEAN (since 1977), and this is also when Japan formalised its till-then-informal dialogue partnership with ASEAN. The US has been involved in several ASEAN-driven maritime-allied formal platforms such as the East Asia Summit (2005), the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (since 2012), and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (which is held with all of the ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners and first took place in Vietnam in 2010). Japan is involved integrally in all of the above forums and the ASEAN+3, an exclusive between ASEAN and China, the Republic of Korea, plus Japan itself. In the broader respect, American involvement has helped forge a unity among the participants of such pioneering political, economic, and security mechanisms amongst, primarily, Southeast and east Asian nations, ably assisted by Japan wherever feasible. America’s (in)famous 2011 ‘pivot to Asia’, officially named a ‘Rebalance’, was meant to re-tune and re-focus its attention to the world’s largest and most important continent as far as the twenty-first century is concerned. This was due to the twin reasons of dealing with the emerging security imperatives related to erasing the extra-sovereign Chinese strategic footprint and devising new paradigms of mutually-beneficial economic cooperation with like-minded Asian countries. Southeast Asia was deemed to be the geographical launchpad of this strategy which has since evolved under succeeding administrations.

Other multilateral involvements which help address issues bearing a commonality and a convergence of maritime interests include the US-Australia-Japan Trilateral Security Dialogue (TSD). Australia is a country which is increasingly being viewed as an actor with the required level of capacities and capabilities befitting a broader and deeper Indo-Pacific institution of itself, and the recent announcement of an Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) arrangement has just critically elevated its nuclear threshold. Within the ambit of the Indo-Pacific region in which all three profess to geopolitical stakes, both the US and Japan are highly committed friends of Australia. The TSD was founded in the late 2000s and was focussed on elevating cooperation between the three major Indo-Pacific players in the broader domain of security, which also includes the diplomatic, economic, social, and political arenas. A concerted and concentrated focus on China was also one of the themes of the security domain of the TSD. The last meeting of this trilateral took place in August 2019, a few months prior to the onset of the novel Coronavirus pandemic in Japan. A joint ministerial statement issued by the three parties was ASEAN-centric and endorsed the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’. This last meeting had actually co-incided with the circulation of the ‘Outlook’ document by the ASEAN community.

It is certain that the US and Japan have, since time immemorial, indicated a tendency to align key and emerging players in regions of critical geopolitical importance, such as Southeast Asia, and this has considerably vitalised multilateralism. This optimism has been consistently backed by strategies entailing day-to-day participation and the US has emerged as an oddly Asian country in itself through a multitude of ever-growing endeavours. It has expended considerable bandwidth to Asia since the end of the warring years and there is much to both gain and learn from such a grand venture by a foreign superpower. The US remains immensely close to the ASEAN, as does Japan. The extent to which Washington and Tokyo have aided, abetted, assisted, and assured their friends and allies either jointly or individually is worth commendation and furthers a welcome duopoly in the Indo-Pacific region. Most of Southeast Asia remains in an emerging form, with a few prosperous exceptions such as the city-state of Singapore which are responsible for the rise of ASEAN as a worthy participant in the Indo-Pacific’s ‘Great Game’.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect those of his employers in the National Maritime Foundation or Modern Diplomacy.

Jay Maniyar
Jay Maniyar
Jay Maniyar is a Researcher affiliated to the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi, India. His work has involved the writing of research articles and papers on topics relevant to Japan, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific regions.