A Welcome Return to Trilateralism

  • By Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University, senior fellow in human freedom at George W. Bush Institute, and Korea chair at CSIS in Washington, D.C.

    July 11, 2022 13:30

    Victor Cha

    The trilateral summit between U.S. President Joe Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid last week may not seem like much. The leaders did not unveil a major agreement, the White House readout was barely a paragraph long, and there was no joint statement.

    But in fact the three-way meeting marks an important effort at restoring normality in relations between Japan and South Korea after years of diplomatic freefall. The last time the three democratic leaders met like this was half decade ago. That type of gap should never occur again. Trilateral cooperation is vital for each leader strategically and good for the national security of all three countries.

    For Biden, more cooperation with Japan and South Korea is good for his Indo-Pacific strategy of bringing together coalitions to address security challenges in Asia from China and North Korea. The U.S. is still pre-eminent in Asia, but it badly needs the support of key partners to buttress the rules-based international order. During the Donald Trump years, trilateralism was not really in the foreign policy vocabulary of the U.S., and Trump could not have cared less about Seoul-Tokyo bickering, reportedly deflecting any requests to intervene by saying, "Why do I have to get involved in everything?"

    For Yoon, more trilateral cooperation fits well with the new government's desire to have a stronger position vis-à-vis China. Beijing treats Seoul shabbily whenever South Korea deals with China alone, but Beijing's attitudes improve markedly when it deals with a South Korea that has strong relations with Tokyo and Washington.

    Trilateralism is also good for the Yoon administration's strategy to grow South Korea's role in regional institutions in Asia and global institutions. The notion among some in Seoul that there is no cost to South Korea for bad relations with Tokyo is wrong. Indeed, part of the reason that the previous government had no voice in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad or in the Indo-Pacific strategy was because of its poor relations with Japan, which was central to these initiatives. South Korea was left forced to deal with China all alone.

    For Kishida, better trilateral relations put Japan in a stronger position with China and enhances regional deterrence with regard to Taiwan, something that Tokyo has been focused on since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Kishida's press statement in Madrid was the only one that did not evince positive vibes about the resumption of trilateral meetings, reflecting continued Japanese pique at the last South Korean government. It is time to get past this and focus on the next five years with Yoon.

    This rapprochement could not have come at a better time because the external security environment, as one U.S. military leader recently said in private, is about the worst since World War II. In Asia, we are seeing security bifurcation with China, Russia, and North Korea defining one bloc, each committed to the other publicly like they have not been since the Cold War. Putin's war has shattered peace in Europe and threatened the rules-based order. The Ukraine war has spurred more determination from China with regard to its designs on Taiwan. If anything, Beijing probably sees its window of opportunity closing as the U.S. and others commit to improving Taiwan's defenses through the end of the decade.

    The reality of China's plans to grow its nuclear weapons stockpiles significantly to 1,000 warheads by 2030 also sits on the security horizon. North Korea's weapons development, meanwhile, seems unstoppable at the moment as it has tested more ballistic missiles through the first-half of 2022 than in any other year.

    Uncertainties about future U.S. politics weighs heavy on the regional security picture. While Biden's internationalism presents a welcome reprieve from Trump, there is no guarantee nativist "America First" will not rise again. In such an uncertain environment, dysfunctional U.S.-Japan-South Korea relations or poor Japan-South Korea bilateral relations are about the lowest-benefit, highest-risk policy that the three allies could pursue.

    Biden, Yoon, and Kishida deserve credit for being very forward-looking in their support of trilateralism. But how can these directives be implemented by the three bureaucracies?

    First, Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo should reinvigorate the Trilateral Consultations and Oversight Group (TCOG) that had been started by the Bill Clinton administration. The purpose of this group was to coordinate diplomacy on North Korea as well as to deal with potential contingencies arising from North Korean belligerence.

    Second, the three allies should consider more cooperation on missile defense. This should include not just information sharing, but also active exercising that tracks and intercepts a simulated North Korean missile. The recent resumption of the "Pacific Dragon" drills is welcome, but the Yoon government must declare invalid the Moon Jae-in government's promise to China not to engage in missile defense cooperation with Japan and the U.S. trilaterally.

    The third area of cooperation for the allies is on critical supply chains. Each government has made this a priority of their economic security policies. Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo should create a 2+2+2 dialogue on supply chains. The Biden-Yoon summit has already made reference to such aspirations. The recent membership of Seoul and Tokyo in the U.S.-led Minerals Security Partnership to create resilient supplies of rare earth minerals outside of China's control is an important step in this direction.

    Fourth, the three allies need to cooperate more on extended deterrence. Both Seoul and Tokyo have concerns about the credibility of the U.S. security commitment in the face of growing North Korean and Chinese ballistic missile and nuclear threats. Involving both allies in a new nuclear planning group that looks at how to respond to North Korean tactical nuclear weapons would be one idea. Starting a trilateral forum that builds on the U.S.-South Korea EDSCG and the U.S.-Japan Extended Deterrence dialogue might be another.

    Fifth, to improve transparency between South Korea and Japan, the three allies should consider a trilateral dialogue that shares defense modernization plans and defense spending priorities. This is important for avoiding insecurity spirals and misperceptions.

    Finally, the U.S. should encourage South Korea and Japan to resolve the issue of compensating wartime forced labor through the establishment of a private fund, largely capitalized by South Korean businesses with some contributions from willing Japanese companies, to bypass South Korean court rulings. This admittedly is an imperfect solution. It does not meet South Korea's full desires to see Japan take responsibility for wartime atrocities, and it does not meet Japan's desires to have these issues settled once and for all. But compromise is necessary now.

    Antagonistic Seoul-Tokyo relations must become a thing of the past. If either Seoul or Tokyo thinks that it can continue the estrangement and rely on the U.S. to fill the gap, it is sadly mistaken. Japan and South Korea have enough potential threats to address without being at each other's throats all the time.

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