Prospects for Trilateral Cooperation: The Philippines, Australia, and Japan

By Mark Manantan

Executive Summary

The fragmentation of the regional multilateral architecture is currently unfolding. The instability is driven by the evolving behaviors of two great powers: China’s increasing assertiveness and the unpredictability of the United States’ (U.S.) engagement in the international system. Against this backdrop of geopolitical and geostrategic shifts, this paper advances the prospects of forming a trilateral cooperation between the Philippines, Australia, and Japan. It argues that the trilateral arrangement will facilitate an “intra-spoke cooperation” that will allow the three U.S. allies to pursue proactive roles in buttressing the regional multilateral scaffolding. Using the convergent security approach, it demonstrates how the three spokes can merge their existing bilateral cooperation into a trilateral linkage underpinned by their mutual interests: engaging China constructively, maintaining active U.S. engagement, and promoting an inclusive regional multilateral order.

This paper aims to make two significant contributions. First, it illustrates how to transform the spokes’ asymmetrical roles by harnessing their collective strength and emphasizing greater diplomatic and policy autonomy without undermining the centrality of the hub. Second, it advances the pragmatic realization of this proposed trilateral arrangement based on empirical evidence. It concludes that the merging of existing bilateral relationships into a more comprehensive trilateral cooperation will allow the spokes to conduct order-building initiatives. This will preserve and maintain the role of the regional multilateral framework as the neutral ground for dialogue and cooperation amid the ongoing great power contest.

To demonstrate the viability of the proposed trilateral linkage, the paper outlines key areas of policy collaboration within the context of reinforcing regional order-building initiatives.