Deepening the New US-Japan-Korea Trilateral Partnership
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Deepening the New US-Japan-Korea Trilateral Partnership

Russia’s war on Ukraine has reverberated around the world, with profound implications for global peace and prosperity. The latest example of this impact occurred just last week, far from the battlefield, in the mountains of western Maryland, where the leaders of three Asia Pacific allied nations met to consolidate a new partnership.

Without the war in Ukraine, the leaders of South Korea and Japan would have found it much more difficult to overcome their historical divisions. But this war has crystalized thinking in both Seoul and Tokyo regarding the need to overcome divides and find new ways to cooperate. And United States President Joe Biden convening the first stand-alone trilateral summit with Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio at Camp David was truly historic.

At the summit, the three leaders issued a series of declarations and agreements meant to institutionalize their partnership across all aspects of their relationship: security, trade, technology, education and regional cooperation.

While falling short of creating a new trilateral security alliance, the three countries committed to consult expeditiously “to coordinate our responses to regional challenges, provocations, and threats affecting our collective interests and security.” They also agreed to establish a hotline between the three capitals, regularize annual meetings among themselves as well as their foreign, defense, trade and industry ministers and national security advisers, share ballistic missile early warning information and conduct a series of large multidomain trilateral military exercises.

The underlying concern animating this new security partnership was clear: North Korea, of course, but especially a newly assertive China. The leaders expressed their concern about “actions inconsistent with the rules-based international order, which undermine regional peace and prosperity.” They pointed to “the dangerous and aggressive behavior supporting unlawful maritime claims [by China] in the South China Sea,” and they “strongly opposed any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the waters of the Indo-Pacific.”

Moreover, they “reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of security and prosperity in the international community.”

Beijing’s reaction to the summit was predictable. President Xi Jinping had already accused the U.S. and its allies of implementing “all-round containment, containment and suppression on our country, bringing unprecedented severe challenges to our development.” And now, China’s official mouthpiece, Global Times, accused the three countries of establishing a “mini NATO,” even though the trilateral security arrangement falls far short of the NATO commitment to come to each other’s defense if attacked.

There’s little doubt, however, that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s increasingly aggressive behavior against neighbors has strengthened Seoul, Tokyo and Washington’s determination to deepen security cooperation.

For South Korea, extending its partnership with Japan through improved security cooperation, information exchanges and ballistic missile defense coordination is vital to address the growing threat from North Korea. And a free and open Indo-Pacific is equally critical for an exporting nation like Korea.

Meanwhile, for Japan, the Chinese threat looms increasingly large — as exemplified by its decision to double defense spending over the next four years, making the country the third largest military spender in the world. Deepened military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow poses a threat to Japan from both the north and the south, where Tokyo faces territorial disputes with both. And as the two major powers increase the military exercises of their navies, air forces and nuclear bombers across the Sea of Japan and the narrow straits separating it from South Korea, there is good reason for Japan to be concerned.

For the U.S., closer cooperation with its two most important Asian allies has been a long-sought goal — one that is now finally achieved and represents a key piece in the larger puzzle of working with allies and partners across the region and around the world. Biden convened the first-ever in-person summit of the Asian Quad leaders (Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.) at the outset of his administration, and he later led the creation of the AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, U.S.) security partnership. The trilateral partnership is the logical next step in building security cooperation across the Indo-Pacific.

Much has also been said — and rightly so — about Kishida’s and especially Yoon’s courage in taking these steps, often against fierce domestic opposition. Historical memories run deep in both countries — and earlier bi- and trilateral attempts at reconciliation floundered.

But there is reason to believe this time will be different. Not only have both leaders demonstrated a total commitment to the new effort — as exemplified by the fact that they’ve met four times in the last four months — but by binding themselves closely to the U.S., they’re making clear that a reversal risks not only their bilateral relationship but their relationship with Washington as well.

There is one other, largely unstated reason behind the desire of countries like Korea and Japan to cleave closer to Washington as well — and that is to bind the U.S. ever more firmly to their future security. With an eye wearily on the U.S. electoral clock, many are deeply concerned about the return of a president dedicated to an “America First” approach. They remember all too well former President Donald Trump threatening to pull troops out of their countries, and telling them to get their own nuclear weapons rather than rely on the U.S. extended deterrent.

So, by institutionalizing this trilateral strategic partnership, the hope in Seoul and Tokyo is that even if the American people decide to elect a new president, their partnership with Washington will now be strong and resilient enough to survive.