Synopsis of the German Marshall Fund’s Japan Trilateral Forum, March 1-2, 2016

Why is it important to forge a global triangular framework under the auspices of Washington, Tokyo, and Brussels? Triangularity was assumed to exist during the Cold War, but Japanese horizons remained seriously limited and Europeans relied heavily on US power in East Asia. A triangle of this sort was posited as the emerging structure in the early 1990s before China’s rise and Japan’s burst bubble refocused attention, as Europeans showed little appetite to assume major responsibilities beyond making Europe whole again. The situation in the 2010s is, arguably, fundamentally different due to at least four factors. One, China’s rise and assertiveness has spilled beyond regional boundaries, demanding a global approach. Two, Sino-Russian ties are taking shape on a Eurasian scale with increasing linkages between responses to each of them. Three, Japanese and Europeans alike are concerned about the danger of US isolationism or partial abandonment of their regional security needs, raising the importance of working together. Finally, global integration has reached a scale so vast—security threats, economic integration needs, challenges to universal values, and etc.—that the two major regions of US alliances should not be treated as unendingly separate. In any case, Japanese officials are increasingly looking to states in Europe and the European Union as a single entity to take trilateral regional cooperation more seriously. So far, they are looking in vain. That is the message from three-way talks.

The “Japan Trilateral Forum, Brussels,” was aimed at the development of the Japan-Europe relationship through reinforcing a common commitment to democratic values, economic stability, and a rules-based global order. Since these objectives are shared with the United States and in US bilateral relations with both Japan and the European Union, the case for triangularity was repeatedly recognized. The issues raised in the various panels—the changing political contexts in 2016, the strategic implications of China’s economic slowdown, the future of rogue state policy, the new silk roads in the changing geo-economic order, dealing with Russia, trilateral cooperation in Southeast Asia, and the G7 and the future of the liberal order—all had an essential US presence. There appears to be little of geostrategic or geo-economic significance that Japanese and Europeans can effectively resolve without strong US involvement.

The security connections between Japan and the European Union are increasingly difficult to deny, as the United States urges both sides to take a firmer stand in the other’s backyard. The hesitation of the European states to become involved in matters of Chinese aggressiveness in Asia is troubling to many Japanese experts, while signs that Japan would cut a separate deal with Russia without regard to its behavior in Ukraine poses a problem to many European security specialists. In this synopsis, only discussions of Asian issues are considered as we review some of the exchanges at the beginning of March when Japanese, European, and US specialists met. There is no intention to provide comprehensive coverage of all of the forum’s themes. Stress is put on clashing views of China and Russia and of Japan’s current pursuit of Russia.

A Lack of International Responsibility and a Challenge from Populism

The current state of EU-Japan relations drew many expressions of frustration. They were called “limited,” “ad hoc,” and “low scale.” Rather than Europeans leading the charge to upgrade this relationship, it was Japanese speakers who appealed for a big advance forward. Europeans do not appear to have given much thought to a new role for Japan on their continent or about how they can work more closely with the Japanese in Asia. In contrast, with China clearly in mind, Japanese presenters sought a greater European role across much of Asia. The responses to their entreaties failed to offer much encouragement, as possible areas of cooperation were discussed. On the whole, in contrast to long-standing images, Japanese were in the forefront in the quest for grand strategic rethinking. Europeans were divided without a far-reaching approach to security, and US participants welcomed these exchanges as steps to elicit more international security responsibility from both sides despite misgivings that the European Union on China and Japan on Russia were falling short of such responsibility.

Talk of political weakness centered on Europe and the United States, not Japan as in prior periods. The EU in the midst of a severe migrant crisis was seen as weak, unlikely to rise to broad challenges not immediately perceived as critical to national interests. While it could not avoid involvement in the Middle East, doubt was raised about its prospects as a global actor. Given the rhetoric emerging in the presidential primaries across the United States, disenchantment about the world’s leading power was also unmistakable. The opinion was heard that populism is on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic due to a sense of powerlessness and weak or divided leadership. People do not feel safe or confident in the future. Amazingly, after years of criticism of Japan’s weak leadership, it loomed in exchanges as a positive contrast.

While populism is in the forefront in political debates about the United States and the European Union, it has been absent in discussions of Japan. On the Japanese side, one answer is that realism has become the dominant approach given the sense of threat from China. While other leaders of US allies generally face populist backlashes, Abe is entrenched in his position after more than three years with the likelihood of two and a half more years (some even speculate that he will find a way to stay through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics). This gives him a freer hand to pursue a long-term agenda. It was said that Japanese perceive the world as if only Japan is politically normal now.  The dearth of populist activism in Japan was also attributed to the huge challenge from China, galvanizing the nation around a shared agenda and ties to balance a rival.

The absence of a populist backlash in Japan under Abe drew some attention. Some saw Japanese society as the key: few migrants and a strong sense of homogeneity. In Abe, some saw a strong leader secure in his post and pro-actively guiding his nation. Another view is that Abe himself is the populist, insistent about overturning the postwar order and making his country great again. He has preempted some themes of populists elsewhere, while effectively balancing them with pragmatism. Whether his troubled economic plans and mixed record in foreign policy as well as revisionist aspirations warrant a positive image did not much preoccupy this audience, since what mattered most is whether Abe’s calls for greater cooperation would be met by the European Union in crisis and a self-absorbed US electorate (but not the Obama administration) with serious interest. If Abe had the advantage in not having to fend off populism, he is still left following in the US footsteps in Asia, while grasping for an autonomous role with Europe and Russia, for which some doubt Japan is strategically prepared. 

Different interpretations pointed either to the absence of much migration arousing resentment and a sense of a growing threat from it, and the low unemployment rate minimizing disaffection, or to the possibility that Abe himself is a populist, who has led Japan in that direction. He attacks the postwar order that has kept Japan from becoming “normal,” showcases the notion that Japan is a victim or is being bashed by those playing the “history card,” and presents himself, essentially, as the one who will make Japan great again. Galvanizes the right wing in Japan, he has capitalized on symbols of national identity, which parallel those of populists in other countries. If Abe is a populist, then it pays to consider whether this impacts his foreign policy, which could matter for coordination with the United States and also with the European Union.

Iran and North Korea as Challenges to Japan-EU-US Coordination

Non-proliferation is one area where Europe and Asia have obvious shared interests. Against the background of the nuclear agreement with Iran and the nuclear and missile tests of North Korea, possibilities for greater cooperation were discussed. If, on the whole, allies of the United States in Europe and Japan have different security foci, the two states against which the great powers have united in pursuit of full denuclearization would seem to be more promising arenas of cooperation. Yet, the divergence in Japan over whether the Iran deal was wise and the talk of a lack of US leadership over North Korea cast doubt on these expectations. One Japanese view is that the two states pose a common threat to the G7, including arms cooperation. If talk turns to which is more dangerous as a cause of proliferation or instability in its region, this distracts from recognition of their combined danger. Another Japanese view is that the two cases are very different—Iran has elections, reformists can gain ground, but sanctions on North Korea leading to an impact inside the country are much more problematic. Discussion was split between a more forceful approach to North Korea (seeing China as part of the problem and relying on three versus three) and Iran in the Middle East versus reinforcing the broad coalition versus Iran and continuing to stress five versus one by keeping China on board against North Korea. For this, Japan needs to avoid separating Europe and Asia (which some thought it is doing) and EU states cast aside their “post-modern syndrome.” In the background were signs that Japan is seeking to rally EU states to pressure China more—with North Korea being one reason—, while Japan’s position on Russia—seen as suspect for its ties to Iran—leaves the US side in doubt. One European response was to fault “all or nothing” approaches as if compromise solutions with China and Russia are showing more promise.

China and Russia and Silk Roads as a Challenge to US-Japan-EU Trilateralism

Discussion of China’s slowdown and its reverberations in Japan also could touch on relations with the United States and the European Union. The main concern was the impact on political stability within China, but attention also turned to whether a more assertive foreign policy would result. There was talk of increased divergence in managing interdependence with China despite the opportunity to coordinate in dealing with it. If some anticipate that China will lack funds to pay for One Belt, One Road, allowing for more competition across its geographical range, others argued that it would still have enough money, which other countries would be competing to obtain. Japanese should be cautious about wishful thinking about China falling into trouble, due both to the negative impact on Japan and to the miscalculations that might be present. In any case, it was assumed that the build-up of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would continue, and its scope of operations would widen, posing a challenge to US-Japanese relations and the European Union. As China’s naval presence crosses the Indian Ocean, the EU role becomes an issue.

Exchanges of views on new silk roads raised the possibility that Japan, the EU states, and the United States could cooperate to shape the new geo-economic architecture of Eurasia, coming from different directions and reshaping Sino-Russian designs. The divergent response over the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was faulted by the Japanese for interfering with such coordination. Yet, a European response held that this is a practical approach together with China, which is not really seen as a competitor. After all, trade is the primary concern of the EU states. Separately, there was awareness that EU solidarity is in shambles, leading countries to pursue narrow self interests with priority for the United States and China and little likelihood of close coordination with Japan. Opinions differed on Japan, ranging from the view that in its overtures to Russia it can work with many EU states to weaken sanctions against the US strategy, to the argument that it is solidly with the United States in trying to get the major EU states to take a stronger role in Asia. Given this overall confusion, there was little prospect in searching for a shared stance on silk roads.

The multiplicity of blueprints for silk roads and reordering Asia not only did not elicit clarity on trilateral cooperation, it left uncertain what any of the parties want. Alternative plans included: Barack Obama’s rebalance to Asia, Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road,” Park Geun-hye’s Northeast Asian Peace and Cooperation Initiative, the ASEAN Community, and Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. Fitting Japan’s thinking into this complex mosaic drew some attention. Does Abe have his own silk road proposal (Japan in the late 1980s was first to raise this terminology, suggesting that Nara was the terminus, and Abe visited all five Central Asian states in October as if he has a regional strategy to counter China’s)? Does Abe’s wooing of Putin have some bearing on geo-economic and geopolitical ambitions for reordering Asia? If so, does this lead to divisiveness with Obama and the European Union or to some emerging joint strategy? Finally, is Abe proceeding as a realist intent on limiting sinocentrism with careful calculations about regional interests or is this an example of his revisionist drive to fulfill a family legacy and to forge a “normal Japan” reviving Asianism?

The crux of the division between Japan and the European Union as well as the dissatisfaction in Washington with the policies of both of them is treatment of Russia and China. As some Japanese reported a low threat perception of Russia, some Europeans spoke of a low threat perception of China. Despite Russian planes forcing Japanese aircraft to scramble in increasing numbers and European trade passing through the South China Sea near the artificial islands that China is militarizing, attention is focused in a different direction. Charging that Russia is unlike China because it is using force to change the status quo, some put priority on responding to it. Others insisted that China has the more far-reaching strategy to dominate a region, using force and other means, while Russia’s objectives are limited. Still others argued that China started hybrid warfare, introduced the notion of grey areas, and set an example of anti-access area denial. Opinions were split, as some blame countries such as Great Britain for looking the other way no matter what China does, even as it encircles Europe, while others faulted Japan for ignoring Russia’s transgressions even when they are close to home in arms sales to China and growing support for North Korea.

At the root of some disagreements were clashing views of Sino-Russian relations. At one extreme were opinions—voiced by Americans, above all—that China and Russia are working increasingly closer together to forge a Eurasian challenge to the global order, connecting Asia and Europe while traversing Central Asia. It follows that both European states and Japan should intensify their strategic ties in order to meet this shared challenge. They need to develop a shared perception of the new threats and tighten security relations under US leadership, given the scale of the challenge. This challenge is ideological, revisiting the narratives on the end of WWII and the end of the Cold War with claims to be pursuing historical justice against Japanese as well as US attempts to twist history in a different light. It is also military, resorting to use of force in limited ways to establish facts on the ground. In this perspective, China and Russia are now more inclined to work in concert or play off each other’s moves—to use each other as a stalking horse in testing the limits of what is achievable—, while both are obsessed with a common adversary, taking advantages of divisions among the states in Asia and Europe uncoordinated in responding to their challenge.

The US global strategy encompasses both China and Russia without narrowing the frame to Asia or Europe, where one or the other would be prioritized at the possible price of neglecting the challenge from the party on the outside. It showcases long-term goals of reaffirming a rules-based order, pressing for an integrated stance from allies in both regions, and forging both a strong Europe and a strong Asia agreed on standing firm against violations of the desired order. Speakers agreed that—to use a term no longer in favor—“the West” now holds the balance of military and economic power, but they questioned whether it has the unity, cohesion, and leadership to do what is necessary to respond effectively to tests of the international community.

The German Marshall Fund Brussels forum found Japanese questioning the essence of the prevailing US view of the Sino-Russian challenge and, even more, European perceptions of this challenge. This was not just some abstract exercise, since there are important decisions to make in 2016 on G7 sanctions toward Russia and on how to respond to China’s militarization and belligerent enforcement of sovereignty in the South China Sea. The focus for Japanese was to elicit greater cooperation from the European states in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and even Central Asia. In each case, they see China as expanding its presence with suspect motives. Having joined the China-led AIIB, the European powers have aroused concern in Japan that they will help to fund China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative rather than try to limit its possible expansionist impact. In the case of Central Asia, which Abe toured in the fall of 2015, regrets were heard that the European Union had blocked proposed trilateral Japan-US-EU coordination. Repeatedly, Japanese speakers indicated that China’s challenge to the world is huge, but that the states of the European Union are too tantalized by economic ties to China and the Obama administration is too intent on cooperation over issues such as climate change to respond firmly enough. The Middle East for both keeps serving as a distraction from the increasingly serious great power challenge from China, in the view of some Japanese. Among the comments heard are that Obama is not taking charge and Europe is paralyzed or the European Union does not do geopolitics. In the background is an impression of rising populism mixed with anti-globalization stymieing the sort of strategic thinking and decision making that Japanese with neither are seeking.  

At the same time that Japanese commentators were warning about apathy toward challenges from China, as if economics trump everything else, some of them were advocating a soft line to Russia on the assumption that its ties with China are not so close and geopolitics dictates this choice. Intensely aware of US government alarm that Japan may choose to undercut the sanctions regime against Russia over Ukraine and that some European countries and companies are bridling at the economic cost of continuing the sanctions, some Japanese seemed intent on persuading Europeans that their focus should shift to China and they should join Japan in a united front to persuade Washington of the desirability of ending the sanctions on Russia soon. As Russia strives to split the European Union and G7 in order to weaken or eliminate the sanctions, Japanese are making the case that when the sanctions expire this summer they do not need to be renewed. This would lessen the burden on Japan should Abe decide that a deal on a peace treaty and the return of some islands is within reach after his May meeting with Putin and he should gut the sanctions when Putin visits Japan.

Russia has been eager to use Japan to split the G7, while China has targeted states in the European Union to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies. Both Japan and the European Union are reluctant to see Sino-Russian relations as very strong, in part because they are being wooed by persons who insist that their country’s diplomacy is at odds with that notion and in part because they are narrowly defining national interests to include one or the other of these states. The Japanese speakers tended to see Russia in Ukraine as less a challenge to the world order than an understandable reflection of longstanding beliefs in cultural closeness, and the European speakers tended to see China in the South China Sea as a matter of different interpretations of historic sovereignty rather than a harbinger of aggressive intentions. The two sides failed to find much common ground in their threat perceptions and strategic priorities.

Japan’s Pursuit of Russia in This Trilateral Context

In the shadow of marginalization due to a growing dependence on the United States or China, a new seriousness about boosting national identity has taken root in Tokyo and Moscow. On the surface, this is a recipe for widening identity gaps with each other—notably due to the symbolism of their territorial dispute—, but Abe and Putin both have unusual top-down control over identity debates and, arguably, could frame a deal with each other to serve their own narratives. Such a breakthrough, however, would be seen with skepticism in the United States and European Union, where views of Russia are more critical and reasoning about China and Sino-Russian relations differs from the Japanese mainstream.

The national identity challenge in Japanese-Russian relations has shifted from a Japanese obsession with “four islands in a batch” as the pathway to regaining pride in the nation’s power to flex a great power’s muscle in Asia and to a Russian phobia about ceding land that would reveal loss of status as an Asian great power. Compromise on sovereignty still touches tender nerves, but it is now more about both a broader, historical identity and an image of ongoing great power capacity at a time China and the United States dominate the geopolitical scene. Thus, settling the territorial dispute is now entangled in assertions about World War II and its lasting legacy as well as multipolarity and Asianism as well as Eurasianism as a major part of the future of Asia. Given their national identity claims, Japanese and Russian officials have been extremely sensitive to remarks the other side makes about how their island dispute originated. Careful about revealing identity goals to powerful partners—the United States and China, respectively—, Tokyo and Moscow have also frowned on open discussion of the strategic identity elements in their mutual search. Instead, the Japanese appeal is centered on a view of Russia as focused on raw power in a multipolar world and balance against China with the right EU, US, and Japanese appeals.    

A March 4 article in Tokyo Shimbun reported on Russia’s delayed approval of the UN sanctions resolution, charging that it fears the impact on its security and economy. With the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment in mind, Russia clearly disagrees with the US-Japan-ROK stress on the meaning of sanctions, since it fears that the real target is the Russian nuclear forces. It managed to wring an exception for foreign coal exported through Rajin in the sanctions in order to proceed with its project to export coal to South China and South Korea, and it insisted on removing from the list of sanctioned North Korean officials the representative in Russia of North Korea’s main arms exporter. As China’s influence in North Korea has slipped, Russia is determined to fill the void to heighten its regional presence. On the left and right such reservations about Russia are common, if not in Yomiuri Shimbun, which echoes the Abe administration in keeping a positive mood for the talks between leaders. The center-right is both most pro US alliance and trilateralism and most pro Russian ties.

Expectations for Japan-Russia relations are decidedly low for at least four reasons. First, few take Abe’s pursuit of Russia seriously, seeing it as one in a succession of overtures over three decades that have floundered with little progress, notably due to Japan’s unwillingness to compromise on demands for the return of four islands. Especially in Russia they have seen no evidence that Abe is flexible on this key point. Second, despite Putin’s call for a “hikiwake” solution on the territorial question, in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis from March 2014, few expect Russia to agree to the transfer of any islands. Recent hardline statements by Russian officials calling for a peace treaty without any territorial change re-enforce this thinking. Third, it is hard to understand what else would be part of a breakthrough agreement, given the geopolitical and geo-economic realities of 2016. The Russian quest for an economic payoff and the Japanese one for a geopolitical payoff appear quixotic in conditions that are now clearly working against this bilateral relationship. Fourth, the United States and China would presumably be averse to what an agreement is likely to include—interfering with the G7 sanctions regime and efforts to unite against Cold War-like aggressiveness from Russia, and with the tightening of coordination on regional and global issues that is the standard appeal from China to its sole great power partner. Yet, rumors of repeated US appeals to Abe not to pursue a deal with Putin, which Abe reportedly has rejected, suggest that prospects for a deal are far from minimal. Japanese appeals to EU states are not only in favor of trilateralism, but also in favor of working to persuade them to urge Washington to look anew at Moscow.

US views of Sino-Russian relations result in divergence on how to respond to Japanese-Russian relations. Some who see Moscow likely to pull back from close ties to Beijing want, at least, to keep the options open for Tokyo to engage Moscow further. In contrast, others who foresee Putin sticking close to Xi for the next few years at least are more concerned about divisions in allied responses. Thus, US reasoning has more to do with perceptions of Putin’s intentions and the strength of the Sino-Russian relationship.

The national identity narratives are essential for selling a compromise to publics aroused by recent historical assertiveness. Compromising on a matter involving territorial loss, as viewed by each side, would pose a strain on a leader’s claim to be of unparalleled importance in boosting his country’s pride and overcoming humiliation. Having yielded to US pressure and found an accommodation with South Korea on “comfort women,” Abe would need to make one more telling concession even as he strove to couch it in terms of some national identity gains. Putin showed in his 2004 border demarcation with China that he is capable of an accommodation—although details were minimized in the Soviet media. He too would require an overall national identity advance to counter what is bound to be much more transparency by the Japanese side than given by China earlier.  

In 2015, the seventieth anniversary of the end of WWII, Abe and Putin were redefining how their country should understand its history and legacy. This brought to the forefront the fact that Japan’s enduring perception of Soviet actions that stripped away four islands and are labeled aggression makes it the victim, while Moscow’s outlook has hardened around the certainty that in this just war in which it suffered the most and heroically ended as the victor it finds the basis of the postwar order that must be preserved for its national pride. Putin seeks acknowledgment by Abe that Japan lost the islands not due to Moscow’s aggression but due to its own aggression, allowing the return of two as a magnanimous gesture and the refusal to return the other, larger two as a just outcome. In contrast, Abe seeks affirmation that Moscow had no right to the islands, but he would leave room for a compromise in recognition of Japan’s higher priorities, in national identity as well as security. Normally, a breakthrough would occur without either side accepting the other’s national identity case—as happened in the Sino-Russian border agreements of the 1990s-2000s. Given the intensity of Putin and Abe’s adherence to historical identity claims, that would seem to be the only way forward, but the heated rhetoric in 2015 complicates this.


The Japanese are the driving force in the quest for US-Japan-EU triangularity. They talk of three pillars working together to stabilize the global and regional orders: the emerging Asian security framework reaching from Japan and South Korea to ASEAN states and Australia, the United States, and an elusive EU entity. Crediting the links between Asian partners and the United States with developing well, they refer to the Japan-EU nexus as the weak link. Even if no military role in East Asia is envisioned for European states, a division of labor in which their moral authority and economic presence are manifest is much desired. If the South China Sea and, even more, the East China, seem too far a stretch, then the Indian Ocean looms as a contentious zone where Europe has more interests to defend. It could be active in intelligence sharing, affirmation of fundamental values, regional integration (backing ASEAN), and capacity building, speakers suggested. The old notion of the European Union serving as a model for harmonious integration has faded, but the call for it to support agents of stability has been growing. Japanese do not see the United States doing enough for this triangle, and they are filling the vacuum through their own appeals to Europe.

When critics of the Obama administration argue, however, that China has crossed red lines and the United States needs to act urgently in a more forceful manner, not only are Europeans disinclined to approve, but many Japanese are too. Aware of the divisions in the region and the long-term nature of the struggle, they stress capacity building and crisis management planning. They also seek to keep fingers pointed at China for dividing ASEAN and an image of Tokyo and Washington as champions of ASEAN solidarity and centrality, to the extent possible. One Japanese proposal was to “multilateralize” official development assistance through allies and partners working closely together.

With Russia’s membership suspended, the remaining G7 has become the entity positioned to advance trilateralism. With Japan poised to host the organization and advocating its resurgence, it can revive a role lost soon after the end of the Cold War as the champion of the liberal international order. Japanese view this as a pathway for their country’s voice to be amplified—given European disunity, Japan becomes the second driving force (and first at times, as in 2016) within this organization. As Asian multilateral organizations are enfeebled, the G7 is poised to fill the gap, some in Japan think, but Japan is having difficulty winning support for this interpretation, in part because Japan’s own strategic resources and thinking are not up to the task.

The three sides in the US-led global universal values alliance—an expanded version of the “West,” as it was known in the Cold War—are not working in unison. In facing Russia, the United States and European Union have largely been together, but when the renewal of sanctions takes center stage in mid-2016, the European Union may edge closer to Japan, opting to reduce Russia’s isolation, if for different reasons. In countering China’s actions, it is the United States and Japan that have worked closely together with uncertain or no support from European states. Tokyo and Washington are the ones insistent on the rule of law and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as well as on rules in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that would put pressure on China’s preferences for state-owned enterprises, while China sees an opening to secure European support for granting it market economy status. Yet, doubts persist on whether Tokyo is an international actor no less than on whether a deeply fragmented European Union can be a serious international actor.

Tokyo and Brussels are, arguably, inconsistent in their appeals to each other. The former seeks more help from NATO, but it cannot be pleased with the absence of observers from the EU states at the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitration tribunal in response to the Philippines’ case against China. The latter appears to have some interest in joining the East Asian Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum despite being outside the area and unwilling to take a clear stand on the security challenges in the region. As concerns rise about US isolationism, Japan and EU cooperation to keep the United States engaged in global and regional matters appears unlikely. The US image has suffered from the Iraq War, the world financial crisis, and a dysfunctional Congress, even before the current presidential primaries damaged it further. When US policy toward China and Russia overcame such hurdles, the narrow thinking of US allies, as when Japan and South Korea turned against each other and Europe was absorbed with its own contradictions, complicated US leadership. Neither Japanese nor many in Europe take a sufficiently broad view of global security to serve trilateralism.

The Brussels German Marshall Fund forum laid out the challenges to trilateralism in the face of what is seen as Eurasianism; there is little agreement on China, on Russia, and on the future of Sino-Russian relations. Without more clarity about the nature of the security threat and the wisdom of any US response, such discussions must be inconclusive. The US-Japan-EU triangle is at present little more than a strategic illusion, however necessary it may appear to be to geostrategic thinkers in Asia and in the West.