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"Trialogue": U.S.-Japan-China Relations and Asian-Pacific Stability

Conclusion: Psychology of Trilateral Relations

The Asian financial crisis, the South Asian nuclear tests, and President Clinton's visit to the PRC appear to have drastically changed the context for discussion of trilateral relations, but those events serve only to underscore the fundamental premises behind the initiation of a three-way dialogue. In particular, concerns regarding the collateral effects of efforts to "demonize" China in the United States and Japan that were prevalent in previous trilateral discussions have given way to questions about whether the United States might make a strategic choice to downplay or abandon its close security and economic relations with Japan in favor of a broadened and deepened relationship with a rising China. The facts suggest that to view U.S. options in these terms is either a false choice or, at best, a premature and unwise consideration under current circumstances. A deeply intertwined U.S.-Japan security relationship is based on decades of economic, security, and political investments and is built on shared democratic values. U.S.-Japan economic ties dwarf the U.S.-PRC economic relationship, even if the PRC has caught up with Japan in importance to the United States in the bilateral trade-deficit category.

Perhaps more significant, manifestations of China's rise, particularly if it is perceived as having come about at Japan's expense, will raise questions regarding whether the ultimate objective of a trilateral dialogue is to develop equidistant tripartite relations, or whether it should reinforce current bilateral relationships while maintaining the status quo, in which the U.S.-Japan security relationship would always be shorter than the U.S.-PRC side of the triangle. While such long-term direction may be influenced by domestic political influences or the emergence of new regional challenges, trilateral dialogue is an appropriate vehicle for increasing confidence building and transparency among all of the parties precisely to forestall the suspicions that might develop if only bilateral contacts are fostered. In the case of either the perpetuation of the status quo through continued preeminence of U.S.-Japan security relations or the possible long-term development of an equidistant tripartite relationship in which Japan would become a more independent actor, the development of a sustained trilateral dialogue will be necessary to manage the psychology of trilateral relations so that one party does not feel that developments in bilateral relations are coming at the expense of any third party. The provision of such reassurance is the foremost task of such a tripartite cooperation, and it is evident that further development of a constructive trilateral dialogue among the United States, Japan, and the PRC is necessary.

See the complete list of Institute reports. The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policies.


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