The Japan-U.S.-Australia trilateral relationship looks great on paper. Three major democracies and advanced economies in the Asia-Pacific region, geographically distant but sharing numerous common values and interests.

Thus, the potential for proactive trilateral cooperation on everything from regional disaster relief to combating terrorism excites policymakers in Washington, Tokyo and Canberra.

This potential was behind a 2007 agreement between Australia and Japan to deepen defense relations, and a series of official talks since 2005 on regional issues. Four years later, however, realization of the full potential of the relationship appears elusive, stymied by the lack of a unified political vision and fears of antagonizing China and, to a lesser extent, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations.

U.S. embassy cables released by WikiLeaks in late August show U.S. negotiators in trilateral meetings were frustrated by Japan’s lack of commitment to specific proposals made to strengthen cooperation, calling Tokyo’s approach “cautious and hesitant.”

Worse, as Australian and Japanese policy experts at a recent seminar on the state of the trilateral relationship at Brisbane’s Griffith University pointed out, in Australia, there is a sense of apathy toward its relationship with Tokyo at an institutional level. With the exception of the whaling issue, on which Australia has taken Japan to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), there is a sense in Canberra, as well as with the Australian public, that relations with Japan are comparatively problem-free.

Determining the extent to which the whaling issue is hindering not only cooperation between Australia and Japan, but also trilateral cooperation among the U.S., Japan and Australia is something of a guessing game. The Australian government insists there has been no damage. But the question is about future cooperation and actions taken, or not taken, due to emotions in both countries over the whaling issue.

Julia Jabour, of the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, notes the case could end up being a lose-lose proposition for both countries.

If the ICJ rules in favor of Australia, Japan could remove itself from the International Whaling Commission and continue to harvest whales outside of IWC regulations.

If the ICJ rules in favor of Japan, it may embolden Australia’s anti-whaling movement and will, at the very least, create headaches for politicians and policymakers in both countries who attempt to move beyond the issue.

On the other hand, even a loss would allow Australian politicians to tell the public they did all that they could.

Yet even if an ICJ ruling that allows Tokyo and Canberra to save face is handed down (expected sometime next year), serious obstacles to getting the relationship among Tokyo, Canberra and Washington back on track remain. The most important challenge has to do with what role the U.S. military will play in the Asia-Pacific region over the coming years.

Participants at the Brisbane symposium expressed concern that, given financial and political realities in Washington, it’s unclear whether the agreement to expand alliance relations among the three countries will be realized.

The U.S. Congress, especially the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, is in no mood to fund more projects for U.S. troops in Asia, and public and political pressure in Washington to relocate U.S. troops now in Japan and South Korea back to America is only expected to grow, especially as the U.S. gets ready for the 2012 elections.

The thought of U.S. troops leaving East Asia concerns Tokyo and Canberra because of fears that even a partial exit by the U.S. will be exploited by China. Here, Tokyo seeks the cooperation of the U.S. and Australia, as well as the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

Canberra and Tokyo, however, tend to view China somewhat differently.

A recent Japanese Defense Ministry white paper called China’s relationship with its neighbors “assertive” and “overbearing,” while the Australian Defense Force Posture Review did not explicitly mention China. The review did mention the importance of ensuring maritime security in the Indian Ocean, which some Japanese participants at the Brisbane symposium interpreted as making sure that China’s maritime activities in the Indian Ocean do not affect Australia’s defense policy.

Despite the whaling issue, a U.S. Congress looking to cut the Pentagon budget and differences over how best to work with China, one nonalliance area where bilateral cooperation between Canberra and Tokyo will be of benefit over the coming months and years is the energy sector.

Australia’s first, and most important, relationship with Japan has always been as a supplier of coal, liquid natural gas and uranium. Australian figures show that, in 2010, total exports to Japan came to 43.5 billion Australian dollars.

Coal was the top export, accounting for 14.8 billion dollars of the total, making Australia Japan’s top source of coal worldwide. Most Australian coal (82 percent) is used for steelmaking, while the remainder is used in coal-fired electric power plants.

It is in liquid natural gas, which is a cheap and relatively clean energy source, where the Australia-Japan relationship may benefit most.

Australia is Japan’s third largest source for LNG, after Indonesia and Malaysia. Tokyo and Osaka Gas, as well as Kyushu, Chubu and Tohoku Electric are among the largest utilities using Australian LNG.

Earlier this month, Tokyo asked Australia for assistance in acquiring coal and other resources to meet power generation. Australia’s minister for resources, energy and tourism, Martin Ferguson, promised that support, and suggested that more LNG in particular could help make up for shortages caused by the shutdown of Japan’s nuclear power plants.

With Indonesia and Malaysia sending more and more LNG to China, as well as providing for their own needs, Australia is a natural location for Tokyo to turn to for increased LNG imports.

Though not well known in Japan, nuclear relations between the two countries are also close. Australia is Japan’s largest supplier of uranium for its 54 nuclear power plants, accounting for one-third of Japan’s total uranium imports. Japan’s other sources of uranium include Canada (27 percent of the total), Namibia (16 percent), Niger (13 percent) and the United States (7 percent).

In sum, the key to the U.S.-Japan-Australia relationship, now drifting without clear political guidance since the optimistic days of 2007, mostly likely lies in increased energy cooperation between Australia and Japan and the safe and secure passage to Japan of those energy supplies.

The March 11 quake and tsunami and Japan’s search for energy to replace nuclear power may be the issues that force Tokyo, Washington and Canberra once again to make forging a closer trilateral relationship a top political priority.

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