US attempts to expand influence in Asia will lead to a rapprochement between Russia and China

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(ORDO NEWS) — The United States is seeking trilateral cooperation in Asia, strengthening ties with Japan and South Korea, writes Foreign Affairs. However, this comes with the risk of escalating relations with Russia, China and North Korea, which do not welcome the expansion of American influence in the region, the author notes.

This week, US President Joe Biden will host Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol at Camp David. The summit will take place at a decisive moment for the relations of the three countries – now or never. In recent months, North Korean missile threats and deep concerns about China’s military capabilities and intentions have spurred allies to unite. But these mutual concerns have been around for decades, and domestic politics — especially those of Seoul and Tokyo — often get in the way of the three countries successfully coordinating strategy. However, the fact that the United States has an internationalist president, South Korea has a bold leader with foreign policy ambitions beyond the Korean Peninsula, and Japan has a prime minister who seeks to strengthen an active security policy marks a unique opportunity for triangular cooperation.

The desire to develop a trilateral relationship reflects the American leader’s broad approach to geostrategic competition: building US power by strengthening institutions and alliances. US-Japan-South Korean relations are strong because they are built around two high-tech allies of the US, which have a huge defense potential and together host a hundred American military bases and about 80,000 troops on their territory. But because of the historical rivalry, getting Japan and South Korea to come to an agreement will not be easy. Biden needs to act quickly as the window of opportunity won’t stay open forever.

How it all began

Trilateral cooperation between Japan, South Korea, and the United States has evolved in fits and starts over the past 30 years, accelerating when North Korean threats escalate and stalling when relations between South Korea and Japan deteriorate.

However, the three countries have come a long way since the mid-1990s, when they began to coordinate their efforts in response to the nascent nuclear program in the DPRK. In 1998, she launched the first multi-stage ballistic missile over Japanese territory. Today, such provocations have become commonplace, but then the whole region shuddered. In the same year, Japan and South Korea took an important step towards smoothing out the sharp corners of their common history.

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi held a historic meeting in Tokyo where the latter recognized Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945 and issued a formal apology. This eased tensions and helped Washington pave the way for the development of trilateral relations,

US attempts to expand influence in Asia will lead to a rapprochement between Russia and China

In 2002, North Korea admitted that it had a secret nuclear weapons program. The six-party talks on the denuclearization of the DPRK, involving China and Russia, which began the following year, were one of Washington’s attempts to strengthen trilateral ties.

However, historical feuds and internal politics continued to affect South Korea-Japan relations. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak escalated tensions when he made a controversial 2012 visit to a series of islands known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan that both countries claim as their own. And in 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe provoked the ire of South Korea and China by visiting a shrine that commemorates those who died for Japan, including convicted war criminals.

Despite tensions, North Korean nuclear tests and diplomatic pressure from the United States helped maintain relations between Seoul and Tokyo at that time. After the third nuclear test in 2013, US President Barack Obama convened a summit between Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye to demonstrate unity in the face of Pyongyang’s aggressive stance. Washington also urged Seoul and Tokyo to address the issue of “comfort women,” a euphemism used to refer to Korean women who were forcibly enrolled in military brothels during World War II. Through Obama’s efforts, in 2015, Park and Abe signed an agreement that stated the desire of both sides to solve the problem “finally and irrevocably.”

Unfortunately, many of these achievements have come to naught due to the changing domestic political tendencies of South Korea since the impeachment of Park Geun-hye in 2017. His progressive successor, Moon Jae-in, was critical of the Japanese “comfort women” deal and liquidated a fund that the two governments had set up with Japanese funding to compensate the victims and their families.

In 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered several Japanese companies to pay compensation to victims of forced labor in Japan during World War II. This triggered a series of new punitive measures on both sides, leading to a deterioration in relations.

In 2021, further provocations by the DPRK, including a test of a long-range cruise missile, again prompted the Biden administration to push for trilateral meetings. During the year there were ten of them, albeit without the direct presence of leaders. But the tension still hasn’t gone away. At a U.S.-sponsored meeting in November of that year, Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Mori objected to attending a joint press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun over the dispute over the Dokdo Islands. / Takeshima.

As a result, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman appeared before reporters in splendid isolation. “There are some bilateral differences between Japan and the Republic of Korea that continue to be resolved,” she said.

Now or never

Today, however, the stars are aligning at the regional and domestic levels, and the Biden administration is looking to strengthen trilateral cooperation before the momentum fades.

US attempts to expand influence in Asia will lead to a rapprochement between Russia and China (1)

Yoon Seok-yeol’s decision to prioritize South Korean-Japanese ties despite weak domestic support, coupled with Kishida’s pragmatic approach to Korean affairs, helped quickly restore relations between Tokyo and Seoul. Meanwhile, Biden’s liberal internationalist views and desire to strengthen alliances and institutions make him a true champion of tripartite engagement.

Several former Obama administration officials now serving with Biden, including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Council Indo-Pacific Affairs Coordinator Kurt Campbell, also have a wealth of experience in planning and running high-level trilateral meetings. As the main ringleader of the revitalization, Campbell has many years of experience and close ties in Japan and South Korea.

While progress has been made over the past year, long-term success is not guaranteed. Yoon Seok Yeol’s collaboration with Japan was welcomed in Washington, but not in Seoul. The Democratic Party of Korea, which currently controls the National Assembly and is the main rival of the ruling People’s Power Party, has criticized the deal the president made with Japan on forced labor during World War II, calling it the “most humiliating moment” in South Korea’s diplomatic history. And although the next presidential election is still four years away, the loss of seats in the parliamentary elections in 2024 or a change of government may once again stall trilateral cooperation. As well as Kishida’s low approval rating and speculation about the timing of an early election if “Korea fatigue” reigns in Japan again.

In the United States, the tripartite relationship has been maintained by both Democratic and Republican administrations. However, U.S. President Donald Trump‘s rejection of alliances and his administration’s relatively detached approach to worsening Japan-South Korea relations do not warrant high Biden enthusiasm from the Republican president. Biden will get bogged down in the presidential campaign next year and may not be able to hold another trilateral summit before the end of his term.

Therefore, it is imperative that all three leaders take this moment as seriously as possible before the political situation changes again.

On the agenda

The visit to Camp David is significant as it will be the first stand-alone meeting of the three leaders to discuss trilateral cooperation. On the agenda, as always, are new measures to strengthen the containment of North Korea. Earlier this year, the parties agreed to exchange information on North Korean missile tests in real time, and this week they are likely to discuss concrete steps.

The Russian national flag flies in front of the Great Hall of the People before a welcoming ceremony for Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in Beijing

The trio could also address potential gaps and misunderstandings related to nuclear contingency planning, including the recently established bilateral US-South Korea advisory group without Japan’s involvement. On the other hand, South Korea and the US will want to know more about Japan’s future counterstrike capabilities, as outlined in its 2022 National Security Strategy.

The parties will also try to build on the Phnom Penh statement made last November. For all three, cooperation on economic security, including the sustainability of supply chains, remains a high priority. Despite US approval of a risk-reducing approach to economic relations with China, there are doubts about the will and ability of the Biden administration to maintain a focus on defensive economic measures, and even in coordination with allies.

These doubts will only intensify as the 2024 US election approaches and the temptation to take hard decisions on China issues grows. Japan and South Korea want the United States to live up to the promises made: stick to the “small yard, high fence” principle,

Disagreements over China are inevitable. Seoul is building relations with Beijing more cautiously than Washington and Tokyo, given its geographic proximity and relatively high economic stakes. Over 40% of its semiconductor exports go to China. Korean firms like Samsung have large manufacturing facilities in China that have recently been targeted by US-Chinese competition.

They were provided with a temporary lifting of American restrictions on the supply of equipment for the production of chips, without which the factories would have to be closed. The initial reactions of Japan and South Korea to the US-imposed export controls against China also differed. Japan is more willing than South Korea to tighten export controls to comply with US restrictions.

US attempts to expand influence in Asia will lead to a rapprochement between Russia and China (1)

Finally, Kishida, Yoon Seok Yeol, and especially Biden will look for ways to legally organize cooperation. One possibility is to hold an annual summit of the leaders of the three countries, or at least formalize the tripartite meetings of national security advisers, which have been held on an ad hoc basis over the past three years. Also, deputies or working groups on specific issues can be involved in trilateral cooperation: economic security, energy cooperation and climate. Institutionalization will help maintain triangular cooperation even in the face of domestic political changes and the deterioration of Japan-South Korea relations.

I see a purpose, but I do not see obstacles

The Biden administration’s way of planning and managing these three-way relationships reflects its broad approach to bringing order to the Indo-Pacific. They believe that a network of alliances and institutions will help expand influence and legitimacy and maintain a rule-based order despite geostrategic competition with China.

Kurt Campbell and Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan anticipated this approach in Foreign Affairs in 2019 when they wrote that the US would need to embed China’s strategy into a dense network of relationships and organizations in Asia and around the world.

At the same time, strengthening trilateral cooperation runs the risk of further escalation in relations with North Korea, which is unlikely to give up nuclear weapons or return to negotiations. This way of building a coalition could also provoke China and Russia, who are critical of US efforts to strengthen alliances in Europe and Asia. Over the past seven months, the two countries have held joint military exercises in the East China and Japan Seas.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in December that Russia’s deployment of a coastal defense missile system on Paramushir, an island in the Kuril archipelago, was in part a response to US deterrence. At the end of July, Shoigu visited Pyongyang and probably requested ammunition for military operations in Ukraine.

US attempts to expand influence in Asia will lead to a rapprochement between Russia and China (3)

For this reason, it is important for the United States to be clear about the goals of the partnership. Security co-operation and contingency planning are not geared towards generating collective defense commitments, as is the case with NATO.

This moment will matter in terms of the region’s attitude to closer triangular engagement, and the voters in Japan and South Korea to the extent and pace of its build-up.

Andrew Yeoh is Senior Fellow and Chairman of the Korea Foundation at the Brookings Institution and Professor of Political Science at the Catholic University of America.

Mireia Solis is Director of the Center for East Asian Policy Studies and Senior Fellow and Chair of Japanese Studies at the Brookings Institution.


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