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U.S. expands its ‘trilateral diplomacy’ in Singapore

Singapore – The Obama administration is all about setting up new, smallish multilateral structures composed of allies, especially when it comes to Asia, and that effort was on full display here in Singapore this weekend with two trilateral meetings on the sidelines of the 2012 IISS Shangri-la Security Dialogue. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImage
JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImage
JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImage

Singapore - The Obama administration is all about setting up new, smallish multilateral structures composed of allies, especially when it comes to Asia, and that effort was on full display here in Singapore this weekend with two trilateral meetings on the sidelines of the 2012 IISS Shangri-la Security Dialogue.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his team including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and PACOM Commander Adm. Samuel Locklear sat down Saturday afternoon first with top level delegations from Japan and South Korea, and then Japan and Australia. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Mark Lippert, his principal deputy Peter Lavoy, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Vikram Singh also participated in both trilateral sessions.

Singapore – The Obama administration is all about setting up new, smallish multilateral structures composed of allies, especially when it comes to Asia, and that effort was on full display here in Singapore this weekend with two trilateral meetings on the sidelines of the 2012 IISS Shangri-la Security Dialogue.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his team including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and PACOM Commander Adm. Samuel Locklear sat down Saturday afternoon first with top level delegations from Japan and South Korea, and then Japan and Australia. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Mark Lippert, his principal deputy Peter Lavoy, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Vikram Singh also participated in both trilateral sessions.

On the allied side of the equation, Japan was represented by Parliamentary Senior Vice Minister of Defense Shu Watanabe and the South Korean team was led by Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-Jin. Minister of Defense Stephen Smith led the Australian team in the second meeting. Japanese Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka was supposed to come to Singapore but pulled out at the last minute due to an impending cabinet reshuffle that might see him lose that post.

Multiple officials inside the first meeting said it focused almost exclusive on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program and Pyongyang’s provocative actions in the region, including the recent failed missile test in April.

"The three ministers concurred that North Korea’s continued provocations including its sinking of the ROK corvette CHEONAN and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, and its missile launch in April 2012, pose a serious threat to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia, and the world," read a Pentagon readout of the session. "North Korea needs to understand that it will achieve nothing by threats or by provocations, and that such behavior will only deepen its international isolation."

A big part of the meeting was to establish the trilateral dialogue as a formalized structure that will endure.

"The three ministers affirmed the importance of trilateral collaboration for regional peace and stability, and they decided to expand the scope of this collaboration that includes humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security, protecting the freedom of navigation, and non-proliferation," the readout said. "They also decided to pursue Defense Ministerial trilateral meetings at the Shangri-La Dialogue in the future."

The U.S. is also using the trilaterals to encourage its allies to make progress on their relations with each other. Officials said the U.S. is pushing Japan and South Korea to sign their long delayed agreement on information sharing, which the U.S. believes would help all three countries work together on sensitive security issues.

The logistics of a trilateral meeting are complicated and that was on display in Singapore as well. The Cable overheard a dispute between the U.S. and Korean delegations over how the translations in the trilateral session would be conducted.

The U.S. side wanted the interpreters to translate simultaneously, so that the 45-minute meeting could cover more ground. The Koreans wanted to the translations to come sequentially, so that everybody in the room would have the best chance to hear and understand the other parties before responding. Eventually a compromise was reach that one official termed "semi-simultaneous" translation.

There was also an extensive discussion about how to conduct the handshake for the official photo, which resulted in the "six hands in" model pictured above.

The U.S.-Japan-Australia meeting was more preliminary, because those three countries have less experience dealing with each other and because Japan and Australia don’t have a formalized alliance relationship yet that includes robust defense cooperation. But that’s part of what the meeting was organized to correct.

"Defense Ministers of Australia and Japan and the United States Secretary of Defense will develop and implement an action plan that promotes a strong, dynamic and flexible trilateral defense relationship over the remainder of this decade to enhance the security and prosperity of the region," the readout of that meeting said.

There may not have been any startling announcements of new policies or projects to come from the meeting, but the increased focus on trilateral structures such as these are meant to show solidarity amongst allies and prevent efforts by competitors and adversaries to divide the U.S. from like-minded regional powers.  

As one U.S. official told The Cable, "The meeting is the message."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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