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Beyond Military Might: Rethinking the Trilateral Summit’s Approach to Regional Security

An emphasis on deterrence isn’t the path toward peace.

Words: Narayani Sritharan
Pictures: Hiroyoshi Urushima

The recent trilateral summit among the United States, Japan, and the Philippines has focused predominantly on strengthening military ties in response to China’s maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea. This military-centric approach, hailed by President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida as elevating US-Japan strategic cooperation to “unprecedented heights,” champions a vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific and world.” However, the reliance on military strength to secure regional stability resonates with a Cold War-era mentality that prioritizes bloc-based alliances, potentially escalating rather than mitigating regional tensions.

President Biden underscored the enduring commitment of the United States to the defense of its allies in his concluding remarks at the summit. “When we stand as one,” he declared, “we are able to forge a better peace for all.” This affirmation of solidarity is crucial but raises important questions about the methods through which peace and stability are pursued. While military alliances ensure a form of deterrence, they must be complemented by robust diplomatic engagements that aim not just at standing as one against a perceived threat but also at forging peace through dialogue and cooperation.

In this context, the announcement of the visit to China by high-level US diplomats, including Daniel J. Kritenbrink and Sarah Beran, marks a critical and encouraging shift. Their mission, aimed at maintaining open lines of communication and managing competition responsibly, signals a potential pivot towards integrating diplomatic strategies with military preparedness.

This proactive diplomatic move comes at a crucial time. Tensions over Taiwan and territorial disputes in the South China Sea have shown worrying escalations. Direct engagement by US diplomats with their Chinese counterparts could serve as a platform for defusing these tensions and constructively discussing contentious issues. This engagement is pivotal not only for reducing immediate military risks but also for establishing a framework for continuous dialogue, which could lead to more stable and cooperative regional dynamics.

Military Might vs Diplomacy 

The summit’s military-focused outcomes might also undermine the centrality of ASEAN, which has been pivotal in regional diplomacy. By potentially sidelining ASEAN, the summit risks weakening the multilateral frameworks designed to handle disputes through dialogue, possibly leading to fragmented regional security mechanisms. This could marginalize smaller Southeast Asian nations, diminishing their influence over their security environment.  The US diplomatic initiative could help reaffirm the importance of multilateralism and dialogue, ensuring that smaller Southeast Asian nations retain influence over their security environment and are not merely bystanders to the decisions made by greater powers.

Furthermore, the summit’s outcomes indicate a missed opportunity for diplomatic innovation. There’s a critical need for establishing new multilateral dialogue mechanisms that include all regional stakeholders, including China. Such initiatives could address underlying tensions without escalating military postures, fostering a more stable and cooperative regional order. The forthcoming diplomatic discussions could also explore these dimensions, emphasizing the urgent interconnectedness of security with economic and environmental stability.

While military alliances ensure a form of deterrence, they must be complemented by robust diplomatic engagements that aim not just at standing as one against a perceived threat but also at forging peace through dialogue and cooperation.

The statement from the summit underscores a shared commitment to “work with like-minded partners and multilateral institutions to address common challenges,” yet remained predominantly focused on strategic deterrence. The US diplomatic visit to China could provide a critical counterbalance by prioritizing constructive dialogue and collaboration. Such efforts are essential for breaking the cycle of mistrust and antagonism that has characterized recent interactions, contrary to the summit’s emphasis on military solutions.

Moreover, the emphasis on strategic and military alliances diverts attention from non-military issues such as economic cooperation, environmental protection, and humanitarian concerns. These areas often bear the brunt of geopolitical tensions but receive less attention in discussions dominated by defense and security.

The implications of increased military activity are profound for local populations in the contested areas. Larger military forces and more frequent exercises can exacerbate tensions, affecting local fishermen and communities and undermining their livelihoods and security.

Pathways Toward Peace 

As we reflect on the outcomes of the summit, it is essential to question whether regional security can truly be achieved through military might alone. The joint statement encourages working “across all domains and at all levels to build a global partnership that is fit for purpose.” Yet, sustainable peace is built on the foundation of comprehensive dialogue and mutual understanding.

It’s time for the trilateral partners to champion diplomatic efforts that not only deter aggression but also build bridges of cooperation and trust, particularly with Beijing. In an era of complex global challenges, revisiting our reliance on traditional military alliances and fostering an inclusive approach to diplomacy may prove more effective in achieving lasting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. 

While the summit set a definitive course toward enhanced security cooperation, it is imperative that we do not overlook the crucial role of diplomacy. The visit to China by high-level US diplomats exemplifies the kind of proactive diplomatic efforts that are essential to complement our military strategies. 

As we move forward, future engagement must equally prioritize diplomatic efforts that involve all regional stakeholders. Only through a balanced approach that combines military deterrence with proactive diplomacy can we hope to achieve a stable, peaceful, and thriving Indo-Pacific. This balance is essential to ensuring that all parties involved are working not just toward immediate security but toward long-term stability through understanding and cooperation. 

Narayani Sritharan

Dr. Narayani Sritharan is a Research Fellow at the Global Research Institute and a Co-Founder and Steering Committee member of Diversifying and Decolonising Economics (D-Econ).

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