Sunday, June 16, 2024
 
 

The need for trilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

American and South Korean military police stand guard at the border separating the Communist North from the South.

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A coercive China and a nuclear North Korea are peripherally affecting the U.S.’ security interests in the Indo-Pacific.  With increasingly well-developed power derived from economic growth and political stability, Beijing has emerged as a global power.  It has become one of the most serious and credible threats to American hegemony.  Concurrently, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un continues to defy United Nations Security Council resolutions by launching ballistic missiles and fortifying his nuclear weapons programs.

Beijing’s influential regional power, its foreign policy, and economic strong-arm tactics play a substantial role in reforming international institutions that are consistent with its global status.  Understandably, China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific will shape the global community’s stability and future.  One cannot deny that China’s extraordinary economic growth and active diplomacy are already transforming the Indo-Pacific.  Future decades may see even more significant increases in Chinese power and influence.

To exacerbate the situation, North Korea presents an immediate threat to the Indo-Pacific and even the continental US  Pyongyang has been steadily developing its weapons systems to include its nuclear arsenal.  Recent cruise missile launches show that Kim is fulfilling his promise to establish diverse and sophisticated means to deliver nuclear weapons.  More importantly, the denuclearization negotiations have stalled for the past two years.  Therefore, enhanced trilateral cooperation to deter North Korea’s provocation is imperative.

The US recently unveiled this same triangle concept – to build a bulwark against China – with Australia and the United Kingdom to maintain stability in the Indo-Pacific.  However, this initiative, called the AUKUS security pact, may not be enough to influence the strategic environment in the region nor to encompass a free and open Indo-Pacific.  That said, the US can mitigate this crisis by also forming a similar trilateral security partnership with Japan and South Korea.

Because of their posture in the Indo-Pacific, a trilateral security partnership between the US-Japan-South Korea possesses better defensive measures than the AUKUS to contain China and in the event that Kim acts on his threats.  In a Joint Statement released at the summit talks between President Biden and South Korean President Moon, Jae-In on May 21, 2021, they launched a plan to facilitate trilateral cooperation over the North Korea problem set.  The two leaders called for the significance of trilateral cooperation (US-Japan-South Korea) for the denuclearization of North Korea.  Notwithstanding, trilateralism among the three states remains non-existent.  With less than 10 months before his five-year term ends, Moon has yet to visit Japan.  Therefore, a revamped security partnership between the US, Japan, and South Korea is essential to counter China’s dominance and prevent North Korea’s provocation.

With a new administration established for Japan, it is time to revisit the idea of trilateralism among these three nations.  All share strong democratic values, and Washington is a security partner of Tokyo and Seoul, committed to their defense due to defense treaties with both in 1953 and 1960, respectively.  The rise of Beijing and nuclear threats and sporadic missile launches from Pyongyang provide the primary basis for these relationships.  The support remains high in both countries for the continuation of these alliances in the foreseeable future.

The ongoing comfort women issue and island disputes between Japan and the ROK have mostly forced the US to play a lesser role instead of directly stressing the importance of good relations.  These collective factors foment the political imbalance that hinders cohesion between the two countries and precludes trilateralism from smoothly operating as a unified body.  Nevertheless, Washington could assist Tokyo and Seoul to rise above their historical disputes by facilitating an amicable agreement between President Moon and Japan’s newly elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

During future visits to Tokyo, President Biden should practice great diplomacy to unite his fellow ally state rather than an affront.  While showing compassion towards the Korea fatigue concerning the comfort women issue, he should persuade Prime Minister Kishida to discontinue Japan’s provoking rhetoric – such as paying homage to the controversial Yasukuni shrine – regarding the matter.  In addition, President Biden must highlight that the cooperation between the US, Japan, and the ROK is critical to resolving a range of political challenges provided by China and North Korea.

Second, President Biden should act as a mediator to bring the US’ two biggest allies – Japan and South Korea – together.  Tokyo and Seoul’s long-lasting bitterness over the issue of comfort women and their constant territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks claimed by both Japan and South Korea (referred to as Takashima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean) in the Sea of Japan have severely damaged their relationship.  Losing either one of these longstanding allies – Japan and the South Korea – would be devastating to the US  That said, to achieve rapprochement between the two, President Biden should act firmly to repair relations.

Likewise, while in South Korea, President Biden should reaffirm Washington’s commitment to a stronger alliance with Seoul and its people.  Biden should remind Moon that recent developments in North Korea call for more fierce endeavors for denuclearization.  The president should emphasize to Moon that a volatile, yet nuclear North Korea still exists in the Korean Peninsula to date and is the actual threat to his country.  Also, Biden should endorse that Tokyo’s latest security and defense reforms do not signal remilitarization.  He must clarify that those are merely defensive measures taken against China’s coercion and intimidation of late.  In short, an evolving regional security climate prompted Japan to expand the role of its national self-defense forces for purposes of its survival.

President Biden should also encourage Moon to accept Tokyo’s sincere apology regarding comfort women and move on from this troubling part of history.  In case of Pyongyang’s demise, Seoul should review collapse scenarios and develop joint contingency plans with Tokyo to potentially respond to this.  Washington should convince Seoul that we cannot indefinitely dwell on the past and must not jeopardize the future.  It seems that Japan is willing to forget the past, but the ROK cannot see beyond history.  Therefore, Biden must convince Moon and Kishida to work toward a better future for the next generation.

Given contested territorial rights, interconnected economies and shifting politics in the Indo-Pacific, all the stakeholders share a common interest: instituting a united front against China’s intimidation and containing an unpredictable North Korea.  The US alone cannot uphold trilateralism – as it is a triangle – that depends on harmony and balance between three countries striving for a better, more connected future.  Accordingly, the ongoing strain between Tokyo and Seoul upsets the required balance and deteriorates Washington’s mission – to achieve peace and prosperity – in the Indo-Pacific.  This makes it imperative that the two bitter nations must resolve their differences.

Should Japan and South Korea fail to reconcile, then trilateralism’s ability to work as a reputable concept is doomed, and all the stakeholders fail to protect their interests.  Triumphant trilateral cooperation means a more demanding security commitment in the Indo-Pacific to restrain China’s economic growth and deter it from its coercion and intimidation.  Along the same lines, the trilateral cooperation will neutralize the North Korean threat and complete America’s strategic rebalancing towards the Indo-Pacific.

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