In the old days, when Japan was the world’s second largest economy, American officials used to describe the U.S.-Japan relationship as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none.” Nowadays such words, if spoken, refer to China, not Japan.
But, of course, Japan continues to be vitally important, not only to the United States but to China as well.
In fact, the United States, China and Japan ― the world’s three largest economies ― share a common responsibility for the well-being of the Asia-Pacific region. They should be working together closely and should be meeting regularly on a trilateral basis.
But such meetings have never been held.
This past weekend (April 7-8), China, Japan and South Korea held talks on regional security and cooperation in the Chinese city of Ningbo.
Such trilateral discussions have become routine among these three countries and take place at various levels, including annual summit meetings. They are clearly useful, from clearing the air where there are doubts to creating mechanisms for further cooperation, such as discussions on a trilateral free trade agreement.
The United States, too, engages in trilateral discussions, such as with its neighbors Canada and Mexico, or with Asian allies Japan and South Korea.
But what is missing ― and badly needed ― are trilateral talks involving the United States, China and Japan.
The United States sees Japan as its most important ally in Asia and that bilateral relationship is in good shape.
The United States also sees China as a rising power that will soon become the world’s biggest economy and that may challenge American hegemony in the region.
Meanwhile, Japan is in the uncomfortable position of having to depend on China for its economic well-being ― since China has replaced the United States as Japan’s biggest trading partner ― while relying on the United States for its security.
Thus, when tensions arise between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku islands ― known in Chinese as the Diaoyu islands ― Tokyo seeks Washington’s reassurance that those Japan-administered islands are covered by their security treaty. Such reassurances were offered both by the Bush and now the Obama administration.
But, of course, the United States has no intention of being dragged into a war with China by Japan over a bunch of inhabited islands.
The most recent incident was in September 2010, when Japan arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler after the vessel collided with Japanese coast guard vessels, sparking a crisis in Sino-Japanese relations.
It is noteworthy that Japan reversed its position and released the Chinese captain a day after then Prime Minister Naoto Kan met with President Barack Obama in New York. It is likely that the United States, while publicly assuring Japan that the security treaty covered the Senkaku islands, privately counseled moderation.
This crisis was eventually settled but in its aftermath the Chinese navy has been much more aggressive in patrolling the area. In fact, as China’s military strengthens, it is likely that what Chinese view as Japanese provocations ― such as Japan’s recent decision to give names to hitherto names islands in the group ― will result in Chinese countermeasures, including not just the publication of maps but a strengthened naval presence.
China’s rise will inevitably bring it into conflict with the United States, the current hegemon, as well as other states in the region, in particular Japan and the countries of Southeast Asia.
It will be in the interests of all three countries ― China, Japan and the United States ― for the three to meet regularly at an official level to discuss any and all issues.
Such regular meetings will have the effect of reducing misunderstandings and suspicions and provide greater transparency.
Trilateral meetings are not meant to be a replacement for the bilateral talks that currently characterize relations among the three countries. Indeed, the three sets of bilateral relations are certainly vital in themselves, but they are insufficient for dealing with the problems facing the region today.
China may be reluctant to hold such talks for fear that the United States and Japan may “gang up” against it. Indeed, Beijing has long been suspicious that Washington and Tokyo were cooperating to frustrate Chinese efforts to achieve reunification with Taiwan.
However, that is no reason not to engage in three-way talks. In fact, a three-way dialogue is likely to help China gain greater insight into the dynamics of the U.S.-Japan relationship.
Such talks are certainly not risk-free but not to engage in them is to pose a greater risk to regional security.