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A Rising Need for U.S.-Japan-China Trilateral Dialogue

February 16, 2011

Coinciding with Chinese President Hu Jintao’s official state visit to Washington last month, The Asia Foundation held a two-day dialogue in Tokyo with the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) and the China Institute for International Studies (CIIS) to examine the state of U.S.-Japan-China relations.

Both events took place against the backdrop of rising tension and mutual distrust among the three countries. President Hu visited Washington at a time when China’s political, economic, and military power is on the rise. The U.S. remains the dominant power in the western Pacific, but U.S. dominance is now being challenged for the first time by China’s rising power. Japan’s relations with the U.S. have been tested under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), especially on issues related to the relocation of the Futenma Air Base on Okinawa. Moreover, the fragility of Japan-China relations was highlighted when Japan arrested a Chinese fishing boat captain whose boat rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and China retaliated by banning exports of rare earth materials to Japan.

In addressing the future of the U.S.-Japan-China trilateral relationship, Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, has stated that “the conventional wisdom among politicians and policy analysts in all three countries is that China’s power and international influence will continue ascending rapidly, whereas the balance is likely to tilt toward the United States in the U.S.-Japan leg of the equation.”

While the U.S. remains the predominant holder of power in East Asia, it is unlikely to remain the sole guarantor of East Asia’s security. The U.S.-Japan alliance remains important, but can no longer serve as the only pole around which security discussions revolve, given China’s increasing political, economic, and military clout. In the future, security in the Asia-Pacific will require both greater collaboration between the U.S. and its allies and increased American engagement with China, in a mix of competition and cooperation with the United States. China’s rise and the regional response (in tandem with that of the U.S.) are two primary factors likely to influence development of new regional security alignments in Asia.

A common theme of rising tensions in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea has been the perception of rising Sino-U.S. tension, which has also had mixed effects on U.S.-Japan alliance management. These tensions come at a time when China wants to show that it is a nation on the rise and has the ability to defend its interests, while the U.S. wants to demonstrate that it is not in a state of decline. In this context, one challenge will be to prevent issues from being blown out of proportion or from being unduly perceived as tests that either put China’s rising sense of prestige and nationalism at stake or that raise questions about American credibility among allies and friends in the Asia-Pacific.

Among the most pressing agenda items requiring attention among Asia’s three largest powers are the need to reduce imbalances in the global economy, combat climate change challenges, counter proliferation of nuclear weapons, increase cooperation on energy security, enhance regional security cooperation via the East Asia Summit, and ensure stability on the Korean peninsula.

Asia’s future stability will undoubtedly depend on the further development of this rising trilateral relationship, and all three countries will need to work together in solving the broad range of regional and global challenges that will affect their common future.

John J. Brandon directs The Asia Foundation’s International Relations Programs and Scott Snyder directs the Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy. They can be reached at and, respectively.

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