Challenges to Biden’s pursuit of trilateralism

Trilateralism is the term used for US-Japan-ROK close strategic cooperation and understanding.
For Tokyo and Seoul, trilateralism requires a fundamental reconceptualization of both national interests and national identities in the region closest to home—Northeast Asia. For Tokyo, the narrative toward this region has been driven by three symbols of identity: 1) slighting the 1990s Kono Statement, Murayama Statement, and Obuchi-Kim Dae-jung Joint Declaration as fleeting moves to normalize relations while “hate Korea” festered;1 2) putting the abductions issue with North Korea in the forefront while ignoring the identity challenges of facing it from both an alliance triangle and historical reconciliation; and 3) pretending that the relationship with Russia centers on the “Northern Territories” issue, rather than on universal values shared with the United States. All three symbols have rallied public opinion, to one degree or another, but have contributed to diplomatic impasses and weak coordination with the United States. In 2021, they are an albatross around Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s neck, who has to distance his country from the much-lauded legacy of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s diplomacy (ignoring its troubles in Northeast Asia)2 and anticipate pressure from President Joe Biden to forge a three-way framework of democracies with shared values and allies with common national interests. In the background looms China, whose policies in Northeast Asia warrant the highest priority.

The challenges facing President Moon Jae-in regarding trilateralism are far greater than those of Suga. His identity obsession with national reunification has been exposed as an illusion with much more serious consequences, given Kim Jong-un’s worldview. Moreover, his progressive camp has widened the national identity gap with Japan to a far greater degree, obstructing the normal course of building future-oriented relations centered on national interests. Even on the threat from Russia and Sino-Russian pressure, Moon’s New Northern Strategy misrepresents reality to a greater degree than Abe’s legacy with President Vladimir Putin, if more quietly. The Biden administration is bound to question the impact of these national identity preoccupations and seek to refocus both national identity and national interest attention on China’s threats, as it prioritizes a vision inclusive of Japan-ROK commitment to universal values and security ties.

While the Quad is a far-reaching target still somewhat beyond the horizon and the coalition to approach China through a consensus is a paramount objective that requires many intermediate steps, trilateralism is the low-hanging fruit, albeit a long-elusive one. Biden’s new foreign policy team is intimately familiar with the Obama administration’s hard-won success in 2015, which collapsed in Japan-ROK bickering and President Donald Trump’s apparent indifference not long afterwards. Not only must they reflect on the lessons from the past decade, they have to face the more urgent imperatives at the start of the 2020s as they pursue US-Japan-ROK ties anew.

Realism dictates that we recognize five major changes in the quest for trilateralism at this time. First, China’s continued rise and “wolf warrior” aggressiveness are tilting the priority challenges. Second, Japan’s stepped-up leadership role and intensified alliance with the US have a skewed effect on the triangle. Third, conceptualization of an Indo-Pacific region is concentrating minds on the wider range of US-led multilateralism, extending to the purposes of trilateralism. Fourth, tensions between the Moon administration and the US, beyond the Trump impact, have raised worrisome doubts about how to reset this bilateral alliance. Finally, impatience with historical memory as a distraction has accelerated in light of strategic demands for a vision of the future. Apart from shortsightedness in Tokyo and Seoul, these recent changes raise new challenges.

Given periodic concern about US abandonment of its allies and unilateralism such as “America First,” intensified interest in trilateralism could be seen as an antidote. However, there is also fear of entrapment, which is much more pronounced in Seoul. While Japanese may largely view trilateralism as a more serious response to threats from China and North Korea, Koreans could be expected to show alarm about being dragged into unwelcome hostility toward two states for which engagement policies are preferred.3 Entrapment concerns also apply to entanglement with Japan in security and on values at a cost of autonomous agendas key to national identity.

The half-century-old goal of forging a trilateral alliance with Japan and South Korea remains elusive despite a growing sense of urgency in Washington. The fact that under Abe Japanese conservatives have consolidated their hold on power and reinforced the belief that they can realize their national identity aspirations bodes poorly for a breakthrough with Seoul. Similarly, Moon’s confidence that progressives have secured their hold on power and are closing in on realizing their national identity obsession is a bad sign for relations with Tokyo. Yet the Biden administration is making the Indo-Pacific its priority under the mantra of multilateralism, and insisting on strengthening alliances as the main mechanism for these ends. How will Biden, Suga, and Moon address the challenge of trilateralism? Will national identity particularism be subordinated to both vital national interests and a broader vision of shared universal values?

This article first discusses US objectives for trilateralism; second, considers Japanese interest in it while acknowledging Japanese barriers to working with the ROK; third, turns to South Korean attitudes toward trilateralism and the impact of attitudes toward Japan; and finally concludes with an overall assessment of the prospects for strengthening this triangle and the ramifications for failing to do so in light of Biden’s pursuit of multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific. If trilateralism fails, what hope remains for other forms of multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific?

US objectives for trilateralism

Resurrecting the officials in charge of Asia policy and close to him in the Obama administration, Biden has turned to Tony Blinken as secretary of state, Jake Sullivan as national security advisor, and Jeff Prescott as what some call “China tsar” at the NSC,4 as we await his choices for the top Asia posts at State, Defense, and the NSC. Waiting in the wings in recent years, these individuals can be expected to think strategically under the mandate Biden has been articulating. Blinken had pushed quarterly Japan-ROK meetings when in office, which may be convened once again.

At least four goals for the US-Japan-ROK triangle can be discerned in late 2020. First, it is seen as a force for more effectively influencing North Korea: clarifying a stage-by-stage approach to negotiations, should they be resumed, and tightening both pressure and deterrence to impact North Korean thinking. Before coordination with China and Russia can be newly addressed, the US can be expected to seek a united front with its allies. Second, the triangle is viewed from the perspective of security policy in Northeast Asia, where China and Russia as well as North Korea are rapidly boosting their military capabilities. Shared intelligence, missile defenses, control over exports, vulnerability to surveillance, and force structures are on the table in bilateral and trilateral exchanges. Third, Biden has expressed the intention to put “values diplomacy” in the forefront, including an early summit of the democracies.5 This would put pressure on Seoul and Tokyo to prioritize their commitment to universal values, limiting mutual attacks over identity differences. Fourth, Biden’s policy toward China, including beefing up the Quad and searching for a Quad-Plus will make demands on Japan and, especially, South Korea. All four objectives raise questions for Moon Jae-in and could lead to new pressure on Moon to work with Japan.  

With Trump’s departure, US unilateralism will be put on hold. Yet the Trump legacy leaves a set of new problems. Instead of keeping the goal of trilateralism alive, Trump narrowed the field of vision to bilateralism in which Washington made demands at will with scant regard to its ally’s desires.6 In facing North Korea, Trump left the illusion that the US could dictate how to proceed, with slight coordination with allies and mere pretense of summitry without careful trade-offs, as if a pathway to denuclearization is just a matter of finding the right chemistry. This puts Biden in a bind, leaving Republicans to pretend Trump was on the right track and that concessions by Biden are a return to weakness of the Clinton era, if not “strategic patience” under Obama. It is little recognized that Steve Beigun was shifting toward step-by-step agreements and was active in consulting with allies; Biden’s continuity plus multilateralism is likely to draw harsh rebukes.  

Biden aspires to security architecture capable of constraining China and deterring North Korea. Japan prioritizes the former, but the ROK fears that putting pressure on China will come at the cost of undermining deterrence of North Korea. Also, Biden welcomes an economic agreement that limits the flow of dual-use technology to China, seeking a degree of decoupling that will be harder for Japan with companies much more invested there and even more for South Korea in a tight economic embrace with China and much more dependent on foreign trade.7 Finally, Biden plans to rally democracies around a values agenda with China as its principal target—a challenge for Japan with its reticence to raise human rights concerns and more so for the ROK insistent on not rocking the boat in fragile relations with its two ultrasensitive neighbors poised to retaliate.

It can be safely assumed that the alliance with Japan will be Biden’s priority, not because it is seen as in any way distressed but because it looms as the gateway to a regional strategy. Four changes may be on the horizon: 1) from interoperability to interdependence of forces; 2) from shared values to a common vision; 3) from economic regionalism to technological decoupling from China; and 4) from hub and spokes centered on the US to Japan capitalizing on its build-up of network power and soft power in joint engagement across much of Asia. These and other ideas for US-Japan relations can be found in the fourth Armitage-Nye report issued by CSIS in October 2020 as “A New Security Agenda for the U.S.-Japan Alliance.”8  The new keywords are an “equal alliance” and a “global agenda,” standards that challenge the US-ROK relationship. A meeting of the minds between Tokyo and Washington would put greater pressure on Seoul.

Japan’s attitudes toward trilateralism

Abe’s legacy is highly appreciated in Washington and in circles concerned with security and foreign relations in Japan.9 Suga has followed him in travelling early to key Southeast Asian countries and then hosting the first Quad foreign ministers meeting supportive of India’s new alarm about China’s border thrusts in the Himalayas and Australia’s new shock at the informal sanctions against it as well as the 14-point demands issued by China before relations can be set right again.10 As the US is mired in a hellish power transition, Japan continues to step up in Asia. Its self-image has shifted accordingly as co-architect of an emerging strategy for a large region.

Overtures from the Moon administration to improve relations without resolving the issue of court-ordered compensation for forced labor some eight decades ago have been rebuffed. In early December Suga was refusing Moon’s appeal for a CJK summit by year’s end without some resolution of the threat to cash funds from Japanese companies for this purpose.11 One idea floated from Seoul is to prepare a new “Japan-Korea Joint Declaration,” invoking the legacy of 1998 when the prior declaration ranged widely from cooperating in reconciling historical issues, coordinating on the North Korean nuclear and missile issues, and coordinating in UN diplomacy and maintaining international economic order. It was the foundation of Japan-Korea relations articulating what appeared to be a shared vision.12 Now a resolution might aim to skirt history, which would not satisfy Japanese as long as the sword of compensation hung over their heads.

Japanese have conveniently separated history and security. Setting aside irrationality, they see no reason for Seoul not to endorse the security agenda they have embraced. They are eager for the US to pressure the ROK to accept Japan as a security partner, while insisting that there is no burden for Tokyo to win Seoul’s trust.13 Sharing intelligence directly, arranging for Japanese forces to help evacuate Japanese nationals in case of an emergency on the peninsula, and recognizing the essential role of Japan as the rearguard for any conflict are what Tokyo seeks. After all, North Korea’s missile threat is a shared threat to the two US allies in Northeast Asia. In the background are aspirations that reach beyond the peninsula to new policies toward China.

Japan’s leadership perceives South Korea as intransigent not because of Japan’s failure to assure its former colony of its genuine remorse for such things as forced annexation, cultural genocide, sex slaves, and forced labor without compensation, but because of bloodline identity leading to an agenda pro North Korea and rooted in a generation of leftists rising in the 1980s. It thinks that the Moon administration has boxed itself into a corner, convincing Japanese that compromise now would be fruitless, alienating the US by refusing trilateral security cooperation and by trying to please China in a quest for its help with North Korea, and isolating itself from the new Indo-Pacific security network taking shape. Japanese offer only two ways forward: wait for the generational shift in leadership as youth are proving to be less ideological; or encourage the Biden administration to apply pressure in pursuit of defense integration and affirmation of shared values. Yet optimism that Biden’s priority on multilateralism will put Moon in the hot seat is blurred by concern that in 2013-15, Biden had a role in pressuring Japan to compromise on history issues. The image of Democrats as anti-Japan and pro-China looms in the background for some.

Daniel Sneider has recalled Biden’s trip to Asia in December 2013 shortly after China announced the “East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone,” prodding him to push harder for trilateral security cooperation and for Abe to reassure Park Geun-hye in order to hold a summit and break through the logjam over history issues. Although Biden was also pressuring Park in his stop in Seoul, while she feared that Abe would undercut her after she softened her approach, it was Abe who defied the US approach by visiting Yasukuni later in December, leading to a rare expression of “disappointment” with an allied leader.14 While Obama and Biden in 2014-15 strove to overcome this gap and Blinken played a role, Japan’s trust in Obama and Biden never recovered, albeit it is usually attributed to policy softness toward China rather than weakness toward Seoul.
By 2016, the situation had reversed: Koreans faulted Obama/Biden for favoring Japan in the deal.

South Korea’s attitudes toward trilateralism

While it is tempting to focus on Moon Jae-in’s approach to Japan as the overwhelming barrier to trilateral consensus and coordination, his differences with the US—with Biden no less than Trump—will, arguably, be even more of a stumbling block. Whether the challenge points to military, economic-technology, values, China, or North Korea issues, we should expect rough sailing. It would be a mistake to attribute the gaps primarily to the divide with Japan over history, even if that is leading the media to blame Suga for sticking to Abe’s rigid approach.15 These are rooted not only in contrasting outlooks on historical reconciliation but also in different strategies for forging a regional order and managing the deepening competition between China and the US. The deepest differences apply to ROK-US as well as ROK-Japan ties.

In the military arena, Washington is keen on extending and integrating its alliance and defense partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, making this the backbone of multilateralism. Apart from the long-term deterrence objectives, this means preparing for conflict over North Korea, Japan’s administrative control in the East China Sea, Taiwan, China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea, and even a border clash on the Indo-China border. If the Quad has recently stood in the forefront—sparing Seoul—talk of the Quad-Plus is causing new consternation there. Responses in the ROK range from “we are doing our full share by deterring North Korea” to “it would damage the struggle against the North to alienate China to the point of its retaliation.” In mind is both China’s support for the North and its onerous sanctions on the South since 2016.

The specific military accommodations that might be sought by Washington arouse particular wariness in Seoul and readiness to offer assurances to Beijing under pressure, as demonstrated in Moon’s “three nos” pledge that made possible his December 2017 “normalization” summit with Xi Jinping. All three related to military matters, whether with the US alone or involving Japan. They essentially gave China a veto over South Korean defense decisions. Trilateralism was ruled out by the pledge not to join a trilateral military alliance with Japan. Further proof of Japan’s salience was the pledge not to join a regional anti-ballistic missile system, which could be expanded from the US-Japan force integration in progress. Having accepted THAAD against China’s will, Seoul also promised not to add more to the defensive missile system.  Obviously, hopes for basing intermediate missile forces in South Korea, as the US might desire after withdrawing from the IMF treaty, are a non-starter as well, given Moon’s concern over China’s response.

Even if the focus narrows to responding to North Korea’s new weapons with a military build-up, it is doubtful that Moon and Biden would see eye-to-eye. Moon argues that Kim Jong-un needs confidence-building to trust the US as well as the ROK, while the US consensus is that pressure alone might lead Kim to recalculate and accept a process with the goal of denuclearization. The showdown over this may be avoided if Kim proceeds with provocations while ignoring all of the olive branches Moon is offering. Yet if Kim has a strategy of driving a wedge between the allies, one should not expect “strategic patience” on the US side. Bilateral host-nation support would not be likely to derail cooperation after Trump, but stepped up deterrence might test relations.

Economic tensions could arise over sanctions relief from Seoul, perhaps posed as humanitarian assistance, export controls targeting China, or exacerbation of the ROK-Japanese “trade war” linked to court demands for compensation from Japanese companies for forced labor with US intervention. Washington is moving toward tight restrictions on ties to companies in China with military ownership and denial of exports with military applications. This is already manifest in 5G decoupling and is accelerating. Tokyo is generally on board although differences are likely. Seoul is quietly cooperative, but many tests lie ahead. Since China showed its true colors in the unofficial sanctions it imposed over THAAD deployment, South Korean companies have hedged their bets on China. Still, about 40,000 firms operate there, and decoupling is very gradual. Only from 2021 is the US poised to go beyond unilateral pressure on China to a coordinated alliance approach, putting Seoul in a difficult situation. Seoul-Tokyo cooperation as part of renewed multilateralism is expected to figure into the overall Biden administration economic strategy.

Whereas Seoul is apt to find some common ground on defense, such as a big boost in host-nation support, and is inclined to agree to some decoupling given its own fear of further Chinese sanctions, value diplomacy may pose an even more urgent challenge. Trump gave a false sense of security that this did not matter. At the UN South Korea decided no longer to sponsor resolutions on North Korean human rights. Unlike Abe in 2019 who at least raised concern about Hong Kong with the Chinese,16 Moon has stayed clear of Xi Jinping’s deepening transgressions. Moon sees human rights criticisms as a threat to the pursuit of national interests. The gap with the US and US-Japan agreements will widen a lot.

A big problem for Seoul is that Beijing is more intolerant of it playing the “human rights” card than of Washington or even Tokyo doing so, whether this is due to a bigger power differential, an historical image of Korea’s place in Sinocentrism, or a strategy to target the ROK as the weak link in the US alliance and defense partnership system. South Korean leaders encouraged China by making common cause against Japan over history and have proven more deferential even when provoked, as in the Koguryo controversy from 2003. Japan has been most critical of the values inadequacies beyond just the “history war” with it. The US may soon take greater notice.    

Why has Moon been more positive to Japan of late? Is it because Suga has replaced the much-disliked Abe? Or because Moon seeks Suga’s support for North Korean participation in the Tokyo Olympics? The fact Japan raised the concept of the FOIP made it less appealing to Seoul, and later Moon was struggling to satisfy US appeals to participate. In October 2020 the US and ROK agreed to find commonalities between the FOIP and the NSS, which excludes Australia. Even if such coordination is being explored, Trump relieved Seoul of the urgency to do much beyond the Korean Peninsula. Biden is likely to seek much more, as talk grows of the Quad-Plus. It has even been suggested that Seoul is in danger of being isolated, as even states in Europe start to join with Asian ones in a broad agenda to address China’s assertiveness. Whether the new label is a democratic network, an economic prosperity network, or a next-gen wireless network, a group is taking shape. Lately, Seoul has undercut its image as a champion of liberal values and human rights in North Korea. On global issues, Seoul has retreated since early in the 2010s. A new Japan ambassador from Seoul, Kang Chang-il, is a good sign. Yet it may be more difficult for Seoul to join the FOIP than trilateralism vs. North Korea if the former is perceived as containing China. Biden’s use of “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” may tone down the terms deemed negative in China. Having joined RCEP with Japan and China and given China’s interest in joining CPTPP recently expressed,17 South Korea may consider an opening to join CPTPP, too.

Moon’s interest in arranging a visit by Xi to Seoul may delay a response to Suga and Biden, but the worsened image of China inside South Korea is not likely to be reversed by such a visit.18 Only with Moon’s acceptance of the “three nos” at odds with trilateralism was he able to reset relations with China. To pull back from those assurances could well trigger the end of the reset, just when Xi appears to be dangling the prize of upgraded relations, including a visit by him to the South. After Foreign Minister Wang Yi went to Seoul in early December, Xi could follow (pandemic permitting) to preempt Biden amid talk of raising bilateral ties “to a new level.”19 In moving preemptively at the end of 2020, Xi is making it harder for trilateralism’s establishment.

China’s impact on trilateralism

Prospects for trilateralism are heavily influenced by China, relying on three mechanisms. One, it has pressured and threatened South Korea over its ties to Japan, missile defense cooperation with the US, and even the way it deals with North Korea.20 China’s onerous informal sanctions over THAAD deployment and insistence on South Korea promising “three nos” to resume some semblance of diplomatic normality exemplify this mechanism. Two, China has given just enough encouragement to the United States to coordinate with it in mixing engagement and sanctions through the Security Council rather than deterrence and military pressure to slow trilateralism in defense. Three, China also operates through North Korea, dangling carrots as well as wielding sticks, to sway it from behavior that might be a powerful stimulus to US-led trilateralism. Skilled at driving a wedge between the US and its allies, Beijing keeps trilateralism somewhat at bay.

Full-fledged trilateralism is China’s worst nightmare. It is not at all what China means in calling for stability on the peninsula. Rather, it would constitute a force-multiplier for the US. Having calibrated its policy to the North for forty years to restrain the Soviet Union there, as enmity to the US increased under Xi Jinping, China also resorted to economic coercion against South Korea connected to Seoul’s policy toward the North—although under the pretext of blaming it for its policy toward China. Such pressure weakens the US, damages the appeal to democratic values versus China, and gives North Korea more breathing room. Lately, as China flexed its sanctions muscles against Australia, in the wake of their 2016 application toward the South, Koreans have reason to fear that any move toward trilateralism would put them next in China’s crosshairs. Some argue that China’s loss of soft power shows it was not far-sighted, but that view underestimates how much China prioritizes hard power and considers the time ripe to make clear its red lines, including messaging in 2019 that Seoul-Washington diplomacy toward Pyongyang was ill-advised without going through Beijing and that criticism of Chinese human rights would not be tolerated. Telling has been the contrast between a soft line toward Japan and a hard line toward South Korea, visible in the December 2019 meetings of Xi Jinping with their leaders.21 Clearly, Seoul has been targeted as the weakest link in the triangle. Warmer ties could make it reluctant to participate in measures perceived as containing Chinese power; Beijing has shifted in 2020 to dangling the promise, conditionally, of a visit by Xi Jinping and upgraded relations.

For roughly two decades it was assumed that Beijing was inclined to make common cause with Seoul against Tokyo, stirring historical grievances and welcoming a softer line on North Korea. Yet Tokyo’s economic weight and lesser dependence on China were reason enough to coerce Seoul more. Moreover, Seoul’s need for Beijing’s help in dealing with Pyongyang has contrasted with Tokyo’s security focus mainly against China’s maritime advances. Japanese recognized that Chinese views of history would continue to be used as a cudgel against their country, giving little scope for Chinese identity appeals in contrast to Chinese claims to be in unison with all Koreans in historical memory versus Japan. Whereas Japan agreed to cooperate with the BRI in limited ways (on transparent, joint infrastructure projects if conditions are met), China sought more from South Korea to actually help open up the route to the Arctic as a BRI endeavor and to agree to joint projects involving North Korea, giving life to its New Northern Strategy, while not joining the FOIP in its New Southern Strategy, which has served to limit the security scope of the NSS.

Rather than cultivating its soft power with South Koreans and showing that it prioritizes joint moves to reduce the threat from North Korea, China has opted to put increased pressure on the South. Perhaps, this will someday lead to a debate on who lost South Korea, but that is not the current mood. Amid the rethinking on North Korea in China, as seen in the removal of Shen Zhihua’s writing on the 1950s and the glorification of the Korean War, one wonders if Chinese thinking on South Korea has shifted as well. In late October Xi Jinping commemorated the 70th anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean War, saying, “Seventy years ago, imperialist invaders brought the flames of war burning to the doorway of the new China. The Chinese people have a deep understanding that in responding to invaders, one must speak to them in a language that they understand.” Such talk only further alienates public opinion in South Korea.

The fact that China has alienated South Koreans—in stages from 2004 and especially from 2016—is a necessary if not sufficient condition for trilateralism. The threshold could be crossed with new signs of China enabling North Korea or threatening South Korea over a hardening of its deterrence, a shift not only further to the US but to Japan in trilateralism and aggravated by a “culture war,” as in the current flare-up over kimchi’s true home. Trump and Abe’s troubled images slowed such rebalancing, and Xi’s recent overtures to Moon may be aimed at allaying it in the Biden era.

Prospects for trilateralism and ramifications of failure

Why have hopes for Japan-ROK relations risen in the fall of 2020? There are three reasons: 1) Suga replacing Abe; 2) Biden’s election followed by the appointment of Blinken, steeped in trilateral diplomacy, as secretary of state; and 3) Moon’s new decision to encourage exchanges, whether to test Suga, to preempt Biden, or to seize the opportunity of the Tokyo Olympics to break the logjam or reengage with North Korea. Some damage control could follow if Seoul avoids cashing out the assets of Japanese firms and Tokyo does not make it essential to resolve the issue prior to agreement on steps forward for fear of being caught off guard by such cashing afterwards. Such fear is scuttling the end of 2020 CJK summit Moon had sought to host. Biden could have more success in bringing the two allied leaders together with a call to proceed on a US-led agenda, especially in security, while setting history aside. Both sides might justify deferring to the US, but it would be a leap to advance bilaterally on this basis. Japan would happily trade its export controls for the ROK yielding on the wartime labor issue, but how could Moon agree? The shadow of the abortive 2015 agreement at US urging leaves both allies wary of US involvement again in their core dispute. Bypassing history with emphasis on common values offers a pathway, but Seoul’s preference would be for vague wording so as not to arouse China.

Abe and Moon had a poisonous relationship with scant prospect of finding a pathway to cordial relations to the point of being able to negotiate over the troubles besetting Japanese-ROK ties. The replacement of Abe by Suga means that in 2021 some of the vitriol may be lessened apart from whatever pressure the Biden administration applies to that end. After taking office in September, Suga held out hope of cooperation on the pandemic and North Korea, but rejected the idea that Japan would alter its position on the key stumbling block of forced labor compensation. As for a possible three-way summit with China’s leadership, following the Chengdu CJK meeting at the end of 2019, Suga indicated that he would not attend unless Moon guaranteed that assets of Japanese firms in South Korea would not be seized in order to pay compensation. Clearly, Suga is waiting for Moon to make the first move, given Japanese thinking that Moon is the one responsible for the tensions. Indeed, little progress is expected in Tokyo until Moon leaves the stage in 2022. One test for Japan was the race for director-general of the WTO, which narrowed in October to a South Korean and a Nigerian favored by China. Some in Japan saw the fact of this choice as a failure of Japan’s diplomacy. The decision was postponed in November when the Korean candidate did not withdraw, the US did not support the favored Nigerian candidate, and the pandemic served as a pretext to delay a decision. The US presidential transition left Tokyo and Seoul without pressure at this time, but Moon may anticipate trouble as Biden’s arrival looms.

Biden’s promised “principled diplomacy” with North Korea and expected “stable alliance” with South Korea could be reassuring, but the gap in thinking between Moon’s ideas for renewed engagement and Biden’s likely stress on strengthened deterrence will be challenging. So too will the US priority on a shared vision opposed to China—making identity the driver of decoupling and deterrence as a foundation for cooperation as well as coalition building. The Indo-Pacific scope of regionalism is here to stay, but Biden will gain more traction with both Seoul and Tokyo by downplaying the notion of an Asian NATO and emphasizing its design as a rules-based order.

Were trilateralism to fail, it would put in jeopardy other US-led forms of multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific, be a boon to China, and threaten to dislodge South Korea from the alliance system. It could fail because the Biden administration moves too aggressively, leading the Korean people to rally behind Moon as if Biden has sided with Japan or the ROK has been boxed into alienating China, which is anticipating this possibility with beckoning diplomacy to Seoul. To avoid failure, it is desirable to shift the onus to manage Japan-ROK relations deftly and shift the onus to China.


As Biden is still in transition before a policy review, Moon is seeking to preempt his prospective approach with Trilateralism Light, limiting both any reconciliation with Japan and a broad range of trilateralism that could alienate North Korea and China. Meanwhile, Suga is holding back for a revival of the forward momentum in ROK-Japan relations in 2016, while Xi is stepping up his engagement with Moon to try to prevent any trilateralism. Kim Jong-un and Putin are marginal so far, but they could be impactful through provocations that harden the US regional strategy.

In 2021 and 2022 trilateralism could be the prime test of Sino-US relations, putting Seoul in the middle. If Moon procrastinates, the presidential election of March 2022 would leave it to the Korean people to weigh the balance between their strong support for the ROK-US alliance and caution about alienating China despite deep distrust of it. Both Xi and Biden are likely to visit Seoul in the coming year, making their case to Moon but, more importantly, to the public.

Trilateral issues of 2016 are not those of 2021, posing added difficulties. The gaps have widened, but focus on the history divide between Seoul and Tokyo has averted the gaze of many. The task of building trilateralism demands a far-reaching regional US strategy, not considered earlier, with security, economics, and ideology in the mix as the US avoids entanglement in Japan-ROK history issues but finds a way to shift the focus to matters that avoid claims of moral superiority.

1. Sharon Yoon, “Perceptions of Japan-South Korea Relations: South Korea,” The Asan Forum,” November-December 2019.

2. James D.J. Brown, “Weighed in the Balance: Abe’s Legacy of Searching for Supplemental Security Partners,” The Asan Forum, October 5, 2020.

3. Eun A Jo, “Double Allegiance: Moon Jae-in’s Strategy amid China-US Rivalry,” The Asan Forum, August 27, 2020.

4. The Financial Times, December 2, 2020.

5. The Financial Times, November 19, 2020.

6. Ashley Tellis, “Waylaid by Contradictions: Evaluating Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy,” The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2021.

7. “U.S.-China trade tensions won’t be going away under Biden’s administration,” cnbc, November 9, 2020.

8. Richard L. Armitage and Joseph S, Nye, “The U.S.-Japan Alliance in 2020: An Equal Alliance with a Global Agenda” (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 2020).

9. Akimoto Satohiru, “Anticipating Japan’s Attitudes toward the US President in 2021,” The Asan Forum, October 7, 2020.

10. “Australia PM defiant after China airs 14 grievances,” Bloomberg, November 18, 2020.

11. Yukan Fuji, December 5, 2020.

12. Mainichi Shinmun, December 5, 2020.

13. Sheila Smith, “Perceptions of Japan-South Korea Relations: Japan,” The Asan Forum, November-December 2019.

14. Daniel Sneider, “Why Biden will embrace the American alliances in Northeast Asia,” Toyo Keizai, November 23, 2020.

15. The Kyunghyang Shinmun, October 14, 2020, as reported in Country Report: Korea, The Asan Forum.

16. See “Country Report: Japan” and “Country Report: Korea” covering December 2019 in The Asan Forum.

17. “China open to idea of joining CPTPP—commerce ministry,” Reuters, November 19, 2020.

18. See Kim Jiyoon’s comments on “The Capital Cable,” CSIS webinar, December 17, 2020.

19. “China’s Top Diplomat Stresses S. Korea Ties amid Row with US,” AP, November 26, 2020.

20. See the series of commentaries by Cheng Xiaohe, e.g., “Trick or Treat: Will the Inter-Korean Rapprochement Last?” The Asan Forum, February 13, 2018.

21. Gilbert Rozman, “Introduction to Special Forum: Perceptions of Japan-South Korea Relations,” The Asan Forum, November-December 2019.