Key Cooperative Research Institute for Policy Studies of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the P.R.C (2022-2024)

Zhao Minghao, "The U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral mechanism fuels camp-based confrontation"


(Source: CGTN, 2023-8-19)

U.S. President Joe Biden boards Marine One at Hagerstown Regional Airport in Hagerstown as he travels to Camp David in Maryland, the U.S., August 17, 2023. /CFP

  U.S. President Joe Biden is holding a trilateral summit at Camp David, hosting Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. This marks a significant development in the institutionalization of the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral relationship. The leaders of the three countries unveiled a series of joint initiatives in the fields of technology, education and defense. Notably, they decided to establish a trilateral hotline for communication during crises. This summit is expected to become an annual event for the leaders of the three countries.

  Establishing a U.S.-Japan-ROK alliance to further consolidate U.S. hegemony in East Asia has long been an American aspiration. However, deep-seated issues, such as the comfort women controversy and territorial disputes, have strained relations between Japan and South Korea. While the U.S. sees China's rise as a strategic challenge, Japan and South Korea have very close economic ties with China.

  The Biden administration claims that the U.S. faces a decisive decade in its rivalry to outcompete China. This reflects Washington's sense of urgency to contain China. The U.S. aims to form a bloc to conduct a more intensive encirclement of China, while enhancing the efficiency and flexibility of its actions.

  For example, AUKUS, a trilateral security partnership between Australia, U.K. and U.S., was established in September 2021. This bloc will not only provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines with the support of the U.S. and the U.K., but will also foster deeper cooperation among the three countries in the defense industry supply chain and military technology.

  Washington envisages the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral relationship as a lynchpin in its Indo-Pacific strategy. In the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, formulated by the Biden administration, identifies strengthening the U.S.-Japan-ROK relationship as one of its 10 plans. In recent years, the three countries have held many trilateral summits, deepening trilateral consultations involving top officials in diplomacy, national security, military and intelligence. In particular, the Biden administration has stepped up its efforts to woo the Yoon Suk-yeol administration in South Korea, for example, by elevating U.S.-ROK relations to a global comprehensive strategic alliance and encouraging Japan and South Korea to reconcile tensions.

(L to R) U.S. President Joe Biden, Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and South Korea's President Yoon Suk-yeol greet each other ahead of a trilateral meeting during the G7 Leaders' Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, May 21, 2023. /CFP

  U.S.-Japan-ROK security cooperation has been growing. The trilateral military exercises, which had been halted for years, have resumed, covering real-world combat scenarios like anti-submarine operations, missile defense, and amphibious operations. While these actions seem to target DPRK's nuclear missile threat, their focus on China is increasingly evident.

  In the future, under the framework of increasing trilateral interactions, the U.S. might prioritize trilateral military intelligence sharing, and integrate its THAAD system deployed in South Korea with the sea-based Aegis BMD System and the land-based Patriot system in Japan, creating a U.S.-led regional missile defense system. This will seriously undermine the security interests of China and other countries, leading to a grimmer security conundrum in the region.

  Furthermore, Washington, Tokyo and Seoul have been strengthening communication on the issue of economic security, hinting at a coordinated effort to decouple from Beijing. Reshaping supply chains and reducing economic dependence on China, especially in areas like semiconductors and crucial minerals, are among US' strategic goals. The U.S. seeks to use economic and security policy coordination mechanisms under the U.S.-Japan-ROK framework and leverage the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to weaken China's influence in the Asia-Pacific supply chain and erode economic ties between China and U.S. allies.

  Of greater concern is the trilateral mechanism's growing assertiveness regarding the Taiwan question. The U.S. plays the Taiwan card to foment various anti-China blocs, including the U.S.-Japan-ROK alliance, the U.S.-Japan-Philippines alliance, and the U.S.-Japan-Australia alliance. Washington hopes to coalesce these blocs to raise the military security pressure on China in the Asia-Pacific region.

  In conclusion, the institutionalization of the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral relationship is an essential step for the U.S. to reshape its Asia-Pacific alliance system, which will increase the risk of camp-based confrontation. The Asia-Pacific should be a nexus for cooperative development, not a chessboard for major power rivalry.

  Against the backdrop of the ongoing Ukraine crisis, maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific is crucial for the world. The Cold War mentality and practices commonly seen in exclusive blocs won't lead to lasting security, but only increase the possibility of conflict and place a heavier burden on U.S. allies, such as Japan and South Korea.

Zhao Minghao, a special commentator on current affairs for CGTN, is a professor at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University and a China expert.