Norms and Values
The US — South Korea — Japan Triangle in the Biden Doctrine

The apparent convergence in the Washington-Seoul-Tokyo triangle creates challenges for the new logistics routes currently being built with much difficulty, including through the Sea of Japan, writes Valdai Club expert Igor Istomin.

Despite the aggravation of the situation in Eastern Europe, American policy documents (including the US National Security Strategy published in October 2022) establish China as the country’s main long-term opponent. This explains Washington’s attention to the situation in East Asia. American strategists gave the region its high-priority status back in the early 2010s and in subsequent years its importance has only increased.

Successive administrations have made tactical and stylistic adjustments, but the overall line has remained unchanged. An essential component of US policy has become the building on of a system of ‘axes and spokes’ formed by bilateral alliances, a network of ‘minilaterals’. Washington invites privileged partners to participate without regard to legally binding military or political obligations. The United States demonstrates that practical utility is more important than formal status.

In this regard, the attention of experts is attracted by such associations as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which includes Australia, India, the USA and Japan, as well as the AUKUS coalition consisting of Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States. The tripartite format of coordination between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo enters into the field of discussion much less frequently. Meanwhile, after the Biden administration came to power, it acquired a new dynamic and became a good example of the implementation of American strategy.

Seoul drift

During the Donald Trump administration (2016-2020), the role of South Korea in the United States’ efforts to contain China was relatively modest. Accordingly, it was involved in the American configurations to a lesser extent than, for example, Japan, which became one of the cornerstones of the American strategy. It is significant that Seoul was not included in the Quad, which was the flagship project of the Republican administration within the framework of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept.

This situation was explained by a number of circumstances. Among other things, the contradictory nature of relations between Seoul and Tokyo restricted the involvement of the Republic of Korea in the new alliances, as it was burdened by painful historical experience (during the first half of the 20th century, the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule). At the same time, the high level of dependence of the South Korean economy on China remained the main reason for American wariness.

The situation began to change in the early 2020s. The Joseph Biden administration, immediately after coming to power, began to work on intensifying interaction in the US- South Korea-Japan triangle. Already in April 2021, a meeting of national security advisers was held in this format. Subsequently, multi-level diplomatic coordination was established, including almost monthly meetings at the level of special representatives on the North Korean issue, political directors or cabinet ministers.

In 2022, the victory of conservative candidate Yoon Seok-yeol in South Korea’s presidential elections opened new possibilities for the United States. The right-wing forces in Seoul are taking a hard line toward North Korea, which heightens the importance of American security guarantees. The new South Korean leader not only confirmed his orientation towards Washington, but also showed his readiness to overcome contradictions with Tokyo. In 2022, two meetings of the leaders of the Republic of Korea, the United States and Japan became evidence of the activation of the trilateral format.

Moderation and prudence

Statements following the results of trilateral meetings indicate that the United States is acting carefully in this format, not pushing the topic of containing China (unlike a number of other associations). North Korean issues are brought to the fore on the agenda of discussions, while Beijing is not directly mentioned in the adopted documents. In fact, the issues of containing the PRC within the framework of the triangle are being worked out; one can easily ascertain this orientation through the set of keywords and transparent euphemisms which are used.

Clear evidence of this is the joint condemnation of “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in waters of the Indo-Pacific, including through unlawful maritime claims, militarisation of reclaimed features, and coercive activities”. In addition, there are ritual references to adherence to a “rule-based order” in the tripartite statements. The emphasis on the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait was also a clear attack on China.

A practical addition to political coordination is the intensification of interaction between the military in a trilateral format, in addition to the traditional practices of bilateral and multilateral cooperation. In particular, in 2022, for the first time in five years, anti-submarine exercises were held by the United States, South Korea and Japan. Such manoeuvres are justified by the need to counter the threat from North Korea. At the same time, the gained experience is also valuable in the event of a conflict with China.

Concurrently, the United States strongly supported Japan’s decision to build up its military potential, announced at the end of 2022. Meanwhile, the provocative statements of the South Korean leadership regarding the possibility of acquiring their own nuclear weapons were left without serious criticism by Washington. Instead, Washington is signalling the possibility of initiating consultations on extended deterrence in a trilateral format. Such discussions are seen as further underpinning US nuclear safeguards.

Economic Statecraft
Understanding the ‘Forever’ Alliance: What AUKUS Means for Australia and the World
Salvatore Babones
Australia’s accession to AUKUS will not result in any net gain to the alliance’s nuclear submarine numbers for decades to come. But it will give the alliance a meaningful, capable base at the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific region, in a politically-stable country that is unlikely ever to withdraw from the partnership, writes Salvatore Babones, Associate Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.

Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing about...)

The interaction of the United States with the Republic of Korea and Japan is not limited to the tripartite format. It is integrated into other coordination mechanisms. So, since the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington has been pulling Seoul into a Quad plus format which includes the privileged partners of the four. The three countries are also participating in the formation of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), negotiations on which were launched in 2022. As part of this association, 14 countries are working to harmonise regulation in a wide range of areas without creating a free trade area. If the negotiations are successful, it will become an improved (from the point of view of the United States, which will not have to open access to its market) replacement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which fell victim to the Trump administration. The agreement will be a response to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, as well as the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, in which the PRC also plays a leading fiddle.

Washington has not lost hope in building the Chip4 format (USA, Republic of Korea, Taiwan and Japan) as a tool to cut Beijing off from semiconductor technology. These plans are stalling, largely because of Seoul, which fears Beijing’s retaliatory measures against South Korean businesses. However, in February 2023, the parties discussed the security of microchip production and trade chains. Given the significance of China’s technological containment for the US, it cannot be ruled out that that they will squeeze partners to create an export control regime.

Finally, another component of American policy is to increase coordination between the Euro-Atlantic and Asian allies of the United States. Back in 2020, NATO initiated a dialogue with its Indo-Pacific partners, which included Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea and Japan. In 2022, interaction in this format received an additional impetus. The leaders of four partner countries, for the first time, received an invitation to the summit of the North Atlantic Alliance.

In early 2023, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited both the Republic of Korea and Japan during his Asian tour. In both countries, he stressed the alliance’s commitment to expanding its presence in the region. An indirect product of the NATO summit was the formalisation of interaction between Canberra, Wellington, Seoul and Tokyo within the framework of the Asia-Pacific Four. In September 2022, representatives of the defence departments of the four countries met without their Euro-Atlantic colleagues.

Significance for Moscow

What does the intensification of interaction between the United States, South Korea and Japan in trilateral and other formats mean for Russia? It points to a greater consolidation of bloc architecture in Northeast Asia, even compared to the 2010s. Unlike the publicised AUKUS, in this case one cannot refer only to the traditional cooperation between Anglo-Saxon countries. Even more cautious states, which previously included the Republic of Korea, have been drawn into the network of American minilateralism.

Moreover, Washington is getting better and better at linking its Euro-Atlantic and Asia-Pacific alliances. If in the 2010s South Korea and Japan shied away from the policy of pressure on Russia or took only symbolic measures, this is no longer possible in the new conditions. It is indicative that Seoul, which has declared its non-participation in the supply of arms to Ukraine, is gradually turning into a source of replenishment of arsenals for NATO (primarily Poland). It even allowed the transfer to Kiev of equipment with South Korean components.

As the bloc logic consolidates, we should expect the deployment of the additional military potential of the United States and its allies near the Russian Far East.

American experts have been discussing the prospect of deploying medium-range missiles in Japan for several years. Tokyo has also begun to show interest in equipping its own self-defence forces with similar weapons systems. In addition, the aggravation of contradictions between Washington and Pyongyang creates prerequisites for the return of American nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula.

Russia will have to respond to such changes as it faces a growing NATO military presence along its western borders. Moreover, the significance of the situation in the Pacific theatre will grow for Moscow as the Russian economy reorients towards relations with non-Western partners. The apparent convergence in the Washington-Seoul-Tokyo triangle creates challenges for the new logistics routes currently being built with much difficulty, including through the Sea of Japan.

A previous version of this material was presented at the “US-Japan-South Korea Triangle (Military-Political and Strategic Aspects)” seminar organized by the Association of Japanese Studies and the Centre for Japanese, Korean and Mongolian Studies at MGIMO (March 2, 2023).

Economic Statecraft
No More Triad? Prospects for Relations Between the Republic of Korea and Japan
Andrey Gubin
Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea occupy an important place in the regional security complex of East Asia. Meanwhile, the fact that both countries have agreements with the United States guaranteeing their military security does not make these neighbours real allies.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.