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. 

“What the Deuce had he to do aboard that Galley?”, said Molière in 1671.1

Why did the French Minister of Defence, Mr Le Drian, become so vocal in 2016, when he called for European patrols in the South China Sea (SCS)? Why, since then, has there been such zeal to join the diplomatico-naval traffic jam in the SCS? Can France really bring any value-added to managing this issue?

Australia Philippines Relations: Connecting the Spokes


This policy brief considers the Comprehensive Partnership between Australia and the Philippines and explores opportunities for both nations to build on the positive trajectory of their relationship in the face of regional geopolitical competition. Key recommendations offered would enhance cooperation between the two nations in four priority issue areas: i) cooperation in an era of strategic competition; ii) regional maritime security; iii) counter- terrorism activities; iv) trade, investment and economic relations.

These recommendations are informed by dialogue among policy-makers, scholars and practitioners at the Philippines-Australia Dialogue, jointly convened by Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress (APPFI) and the Griffith Asia Institute (GAI) in Manila on 18-19 July 2019. Overall, findings indicate that deeper cooperation between Canberra and Manila can be achieved within the framework of the existing partnership, and that opportunities exist for both nations to further engage Washington and other like-minded partners to advance an inclusive regional order. Timing is of the essence. Positive sentiment, particularly in the post-Marawi era will enable deeper bilateral engagement in priority areas, although if not seized quickly the opportunity may pass.

China has been changing the geopolitical landscape of the South China Sea (SCS) through its “gray zone” strategy – a gradualist, revisionist, and unconventional approach to altering the regional and international order in accordance with Chinese national interests. Usually, a “gray zone” campaign is composed of aggressive and hostile activities that lie below the threshold of war, thereby constraining resort to a stronger response from strategic actors.1 Using a different perspective, an omnidirectional approach using all instruments of national power can be gleaned from China’s campaign in the SCS. This strategic design follows the principles of “unrestricted warfare” and uses “all means, including armed force or nonarmed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one's interests”.2