Plagued with something less than good relations between Japan and South Korea, the United States has had difficulty forging a formal three-way alliance in Northeast Asia. Separate American alliances with each country have long been pillars of its geopolitical strategy, but it has lacked a trilateral framework.
In the year of 2023, however, trilateral relations entered a new phase, with the first stand-alone summit of leaders from the three countries held at Camp David in August. It marked the further institutionalization of trilateral ties and represented a historical shift to a new level. The recent meeting of national security advisers and another by defense secretaries added substance to their cooperation.
How should one interpret this development? Will the trilateral relationship evolve into a formal alliance? What are the implications for China and the region as whole?
With the increasingly clear purpose of countering China, Russia and North Korea — separately and together — the scope and depth of America’s trilateral cooperation has been steadily broadened, covering virtually all major fields. Militarily, the focus appears to focus on the potential threat of North Korea. At the recent meeting in Seoul, they launched new “trilateral initiatives” to counter the DPRK in cybercrime, cryptocurrency money laundering and “reckless” space and ballistic missile tests.
What’s more important, however, is the new real-time information-sharing arrangement, which can be directed to other countries if necessary — especially considering U.S. criticism of China’s position on the DPRK and the alleged arms sharing with Russia, which in American eyes constitutes a serious threat to its strategic interests in the Russia-Ukraine war.
On the other hand, though, they frequently cite Taiwan, emphasizing their shared commitment to maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Although the choice of words seems cautious and reserved, the inclusion of Taiwan issue per se provokes China, which has always considered the island an internal and sovereign issue. And when it comes to the South China Sea, the words are much stronger. They are united in claiming that China has broken international law — the international law of the sea treaty (UNCLOS), which the U.S. has never formally joined.
The second area for trilateral cooperation is economics. Both Japan and South Korea are important industrial economies with deep interdependence with China. They also depend upon the U.S. agenda.
Their first concerns are export controls in the name of preventing certain technologies from being used for military purposes (or dual-use). Second is their goal of reconstructing supply chains to exclude China — particularly to ensure the supply of critical minerals and batteries. Third is protecting U.S. leads in technology standards, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and the like, and bolstering their combined scientific and technological innovation capabilities. Fourth is competing for regional economic predominance through such platforms as the IPEF and PIIG.
But controlling China’s semiconductor development, as can be seen clearly, is by no means limited to curbing military capabilities only. It is more about China’s industrial and technological upgrading, which has long worried the United States. Moreover, while the U.S. doesn’t hesitate to impose sanctions on countries it dislikes, when China does the same thing it gets a negative spin, with such terms as “economic coercion.” The U.S. might recall that Japan also levied sanctions against South Korea years ago for political reasons. Exaggerating the urgency of supply chain resilience and alienating China is totally groundless.
Ideological rhetoric has always been a tool that costs little but brings high returns. Claiming to maintain the rules-based order and to play the role of a defender of freedom, openness and safety in the Indio-Pacific region, while at the same time coordinating action on other international issues, such as the Ukraine war and Palestine-Israel conflict and holding high the banner of universal values, such as democracy and human rights, the U.S., Japan and South Korea attempt to take advantage of their right to speak and shape the discourse of regional affairs in their ideal direction. In this narrative, China, Russia and North Korea are caricatured as an opposing bloc with values and social systems that must to be isolated and responded to collectively.
Finally, the rapid institutionalization and regularization of cooperation shows the extent and depth of alliance-directed development. At their August summit, the U.S., Japan and South Korea set up a hotline for consultations during times of crisis, regularized trilateral military exercises, agreed to hold trilateral leaders’ summits on an annual basis and determined that their respective national security officials will meet at least twice a year. Building on this, the defense chiefs from the three countries recently agreed to finalize a trilateral multi-year exercise plan by the end of this year, aiming directly at North Korea. With the format already set, the only thing left is timing.
Considering the current U.S. policy toward China, based on all-around competition on one hand and seeking dialogue and cooperation on the other, it may be impractical for the three to formally declare an alliance. However, as some U.S. strategists put it, a network of different types and multilayered alliances or groupings into which both Japan and South Korea are incorporated, can serve U.S. regional interest even better. Through bilateral alliances, trilateral mechanisms and such platforms as QUAD Plus, G7 Plus and NATO Plus, the three can align toward multiple goals without formally offending China and Russia.
Yet one important precondition for strengthening Japan-ROK ties, as well as trilateral cooperation, can be attributed to the change of leadership in all three countries in recent years, which makes it politically vulnerable in the domestic sphere. Further, structural obstacles, such as the deep-rooted mistrust between Japan and South Korea, as well as the temperature difference in their willingness to counter China, will hinder the tempo and efficacy of the de facto three-way alliance in the days to come.