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The importance of Japanese, European and US Trilateral Engagement

U.S. primacy in the post-war international order benefited from the strong support of allies in Asia and Europe writes Joshua H. Walker. Alliances such as NATO and U.S.-Japan alliance have been critical to maintaining an international system based on economic openness and the rule of law.

Similarly, new economic and commercial initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnerships (TTIP) can be expected to breathe new life into the United States’ international presence and will hopefully raise U.S. stakes in both Europe and the Asia-Pacific. These new initiatives come at a time when Russia’s overt aggression in Ukraine and China’s more subtle pressure in the South China Sea and beyond suggest a fraying of international norms.

This is also a time of poignant reminders of how history remains present. Last month saw the commemoration of the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks. As its Chinese and Korean neighbors like to remind them, Japan was once hijacked by a military industrial complex that demanded further conquest to maintain its empire. This year also marks the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II. After surrendering, Japan — partnering with the United States — reimagined itself as the world’s first pacifist power, constitutionally is forbidden from waging war.

The new challenges to the international order, along with the lessons learned from historical experience, require the United States to revitalize its strategic thinking for the years ahead. Two kinds of policy initiatives can play a useful role. The first involves thinking through a variety of scenarios and simulating future crises. In Asia, these might include Korean reunification, an accident in the crucial Straits of Malacca, and a Himalayan border dispute. In December, a group of young strategists from the United States, Europe, and several Asian countries gathered in Tokyo under the auspices of The German Marshall Fund and Sasakawa Peace Foundation to game these scenarios.

The simulation imagined domestic and economic crises that leveled the playing field between the United States and a rising China, while strategic moves made by India and Indonesia resulted in a dynamic outcome. This clearly suggested the growing importance of Asian democracies such as India and Indonesia, the continuing need for the U.S.-Japan alliance, and the presence of active U.S. diplomacy in the region to prevent future crises.

The role of institutions was also highlighted, and the differences between how Asian and European regional infrastructures led to heightened crisis-management problems were instructive. The United States’ so-called pivot (or rebalance) to Asia has often been painted as being at the expense of Europe. However, as GMF’s Young Strategists Forum suggested, trilateral cooperation involving both European and Asian allies and partners is a force multiplier that mutually benefits everyone rather than excluding anyone. Strengthening the European-Japanese leg of the triangle — in which strong transatlantic and transpacific partnerships anchored by the United States help guarantee regional security — will be critical in the coming years, along with greater attention and cooperation with emerging powers such as India and Indonesia.

This leads to a second kind of initiative, which involves deepening dialogue on strategic issues between Japan and Europe, and involving the United States as and when necessary. Towards this end, annual events that bring together academics, business, government, media, and think-tank leaders to discuss and share areas of mutual concerns such as the Tokyo Foundation and GMF’s Trilateral Forum Tokyo are critical to creating the necessary human capital and networks to realize this potential. Japanese-European partnership has always been the missing trilatereal link.

Yet there has never been a more important time, as Foreign Minister Kishida highlighted to participants at the inaugural Japan Trilateral Forum in Brussels just this week. “2015 is a milestone year for Japan, Europe, and the world, to make a new pledge and act more proactively for world peace and prosperity,” he said. “Japan is determined to mark this year with the opening of a new chapter in Japan-Europe relations.” The mutual trust fostered after 70 years of partnership with the United States since World War II serves as a glue for the type of trilateral cooperation that will be necessary in adapting to new conditions in the international system while upholding its fundamental rules that have increasingly come under challenge not just from state actors but also from non-state actors such as terrorist groups that recently struck in Paris.

The role that the United States played after World War II with the Marshall Plan and reconstruction in Japan — an ambitious attempt at reconciling the past with the future — still provides inspiration for trilateral engagement based on shared values and common prosperity, even for regions and countries separated by geography and culture. Therefore while Japan may be geographically far from Europe, as it is from the United States, it remains the most important Asian ally.

Joshua H. Walker is a transatlantic fellow with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund in the United States. Follow him on twitter @drjwalk This article was previously published by the German Marshall fund.

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