A US Perspective

"US-ROK-Japanese Trilateral Security Cooperation"


When President Barack Obama announced his much-touted “rebalance” to Asia in a speech in Australia in November 2011, his administration believed that its new stance toward the Asia-Pacific policy would be his foreign policy legacy. Having ended, so they hoped, America’s military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, their emphasis on enhancing US relations with the world’s most dynamic region seemed to announce a new post-9/11 era. As Obama prepares to leave office in just under a year, his “pivot” to Asia has been both overshadowed by global crises and proven ineffective in shaping the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific. The rise of ISIS, the devastation of the Syrian civil war, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and intervention in Syria, and questions about the Iranian nuclear pact have seemed to overwhelm the administration, leading observers to claim that the world Obama bequeaths to his successor is far more unstable than the one he inherited in 2009. This commentary looks at what a new administration might do, while concentrating on triangular US-ROK-Japanese relations in parallel with the other postings.


What was hoped to be a successful set of initiatives in Asia has been sidelined by a worsening of the regional security environment. Beijing has shifted the security equilibrium in the South China Sea through over 3,000 acres of land-reclamation on reefs and atolls, building new islands and establishing bases with runways, port facilities, and administrative structures. In January, Chinese civilian flights began landing on the isolated islands. In response, the Obama administration publicly warned China to stop its building activities and sent both US planes and ships near the waters on which Beijing now claims 12-mile territorial limits. As for North Korea, Pyongyang began 2016 by conducting its fourth nuclear test, rattling the world by claiming it was a hydrogen explosion. After seven years of “strategic patience,” the Obama administration has made no headway in either denuclearizing or containing North Korea. US allies in the Asia-Pacific make known their concern over increasing instability in the region, and question Washington’s long-term commitment to maintaining security. Japan is one of the leaders in pressing for more forceful US commitments, while South Korea is reemphasizing the alliance and taking a fresh look at trilateral security ties with Japan, looking to more US leadership.


The next US president will, thus, have to maintain the US presence in Asia while dealing with a plethora of foreign challenges. Doing so will require a clear policy and an enhanced working relationship with regional partners. In particular, Washington should commit to working with Japan and South Korea as the core of a community of liberal interests that upholds norms and rules, and provides encouragement to other nations to cooperate in strengthening Asia’s open, rules-based system. The time is particularly ripe for such an approach, given the recent rapprochement between Seoul and Tokyo. After an extended period in which the ROK-Japan working relationship barely functioned, President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo have made important moves to reinvigorate ties. Most notably, Abe offered a landmark official apology in December 2015 for the World War II-era “comfort women,” and for the first time pledged Japanese government funds for support of the surviving victims. Given that these two leaders both will be in office for the next two years (Abe’s departure date being uncertain, but unlikely to be soon), a refusal to begin moving beyond the past and start working together would have meant a significant failure of foreign policy on both sides, seriously limiting US options.


The importance of forging a tight working relationship between Seoul and Tokyo cannot be overstated. As East Asia’s leading democracies and largest free economies, the two serve as models of liberal governance in a region that still struggles between authoritarianism and democracy. Just as importantly, as the two key American allies in East Asia, their lack of close coordination of security policy has limited the degree to which Washington can plan for a comprehensive approach to risk management in East Asia. With the goal of preserving order in the region, there are three policy priorities that the next US administration should pursue in East Asia: containing North Korea, strengthening maritime security in the Yellow and East China Seas, and promoting democracy. Each of these should be undertaken as part of a renewed trilateral initiative among Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington, thereby building on the venerable “hub-and-spokes” model of US alliances in Asia.


The first priority should be a new policy towards the Korean Peninsula. The Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” has essentially meant a pause of over a half-decade in any new US initiatives. After the failure of the Bush administration to prevent North Korea from achieving nuclear capability, US policy has been stuck in the mode of seeking denuclearization, without any realistic chance of achieving it. Obama’s sole attempt at deal-making with Pyongyang, the “leap day agreement” in February 2012, was broken by the North within weeks of its signing.


The next president should declare North Korea a nuclear power and develop a containment policy that makes clear that any aggression by North Korea will result in graduated responses. For too long, Pyongyang has escaped any real punishment for its provocations. Meaningful financial sanctions targeted at the Kim family and regime leaders should be implemented by the United States and its partners. With the recent thaw in relations between Seoul and Tokyo, Washington should push for an expanded trilateral approach to security coordination; greater information sharing and crisis planning will allow for a more integrated strategy. While it will be difficult, the next administration should also push for ROK-Japan-US crisis exercises and defense training related to Korean Peninsula contingencies. Working to have Japan join South Korea and the United States in maritime and air exercises will enhance crisis response, while South Korea should be brought more fully into the robust Japan-US missile defense program. Ultimately, defense procurement planning should be discussed among the three partners, aiming at developing more coordinated ballistic missile defense and information-gathering capabilities.


These moves present the North with a unified front, but also deepen the working relationship between Seoul and Tokyo. The next president must be committed, moreover, to putting political capital behind a strengthened trilateral relationship, and making the case to the leadership and publics of both South Korea and Japan why closer cooperation is vital to the maintenance of stability on the Korean peninsula.


A second priority for the next administration is to enhance maritime security initiatives in the East China and Yellow seas. While much recent attention has been paid to the South China Sea, including China’s land reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands chain, the waters of Northeast Asia are not free from tension. Japan and China continue to tangle over the Senkaku (Daioyu) Islands in the East China Sea, while in December 2015, the South Korean navy fired warning shots at a Chinese maritime patrol vessel that crossed the Northern Limit Line between North and South Korea. As early as 2010, Beijing warned Seoul and Washington not to undertake military exercises in the Yellow Sea, arguing that its exclusive economic zone would be transgressed.


The danger in Northeast Asia is that the rules of maritime behavior are being undermined by increasing competition and competing sovereignty claims over disputed islands, just as in the South China Sea. While South Korea and Japan have their own territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese), there is little danger of the two coming to blows over them. The same cannot be said, however, for either the Senkakus or maritime borders in the Yellow Sea. As China’s navy and maritime patrol force have modernized and increased their ability to operate throughout the region, Beijing has become more willing to use them to uphold claims and put pressure on smaller naval forces. The same goes for its expanding air forces, which now patrol the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that Beijing abruptly declared in the East China Sea in November 2013. Given that China’s ADIZ overlaps with parts of both Japan and South Korea’s respective air defense zones, an incident over the skies of the East China Sea remains a distinct possibility.


The next US administration should aim at ensuring that clear rules of behavior continue to hold in Northeast Asia’s seas and skies. The goal is not to provoke a confrontation with China, but instead to make sure that no nation feels coerced by China into changing its behavior (as both Japanese and Korean civilian airlines did when they agreed to abide by China’s ADIZ rules). One way to achieve this is by closer coordination at the trilateral level on regional freedom of navigation and overflight operations. While it is a stretch to think that the ROK Navy would get involved in joint exercises near the Senkakus, at least while the Dokdo issue lingers, broader freedom of navigation operations in the region’s waters are a possibility, as would be joint overflight activities. These could be used for working on trilateral air traffic control exercises for military flights and also with air-sea rescue exercises. The goal, as with Korean Peninsula cooperation, is twofold: to increase working ties between the ROK and Japanese militaries, and to send a message that the region’s democratic states will work together to ensure that no nation feels free to disrupt the open structure of regional trade and transportation, and that maritime claims need to be settled by negotiations, not force.


A third policy for the next administration is to work with both South Korea and Japan on jointly strengthening democracy, human rights, and civil society in the Asia-Pacific. Both countries are powerful models of the benefits of rule of law, freedom of the press, women’s rights, universal education, and free elections. Each has followed a slightly different path, and each continues to wrestle with the boundaries between the state and civil society, but they have traveled farther down the democratic path than most of their neighbors.


Asia is in particular need of liberal voices. Some states are backsliding, like Thailand and Malaysia, and need to be reminded that, while democracy is often a messy and inefficient process, it is also the system that brings about the most development and social stability over the long-run. Other countries, like Myanmar, have just begun their democratic experience, and will benefit from the learned experience of more established democratic states like South Korea and Japan. The two can also serve as counterexamples to authoritarian systems like those in China and the Mekong Valley nations.


Under the Obama administration, human rights and democracy promotion have taken a back seat to other priorities, such as attempting to forge a closer relationship with China. It is time to return to them as tools in a broader strategy that seek to increase the liberal community of interests in the Asia-Pacific region. The more democracies a region has, the more likely it is to be stable and have cooperative policies across borders. No one is calling for an EU-type structure in Asia, but the lack of cooperation among democracies may be a contributing factor to growing regional instability. The three nations should host democracy conferences, grass roots gatherings, legislative exchanges, and the like, in order to strengthen civil society bonds in Asia. Democratic states, in particular, should be engaged in an on-going discussion of women’s rights, press freedoms, legal systems, and educational modernization. The expertise (and limitations) of both South Korea and Japan can be a major part of helping promote liberal values.


These are just three ideas for the next US administration to pursue. Whatever choice is made, there should be a two-fold goal behind Asia policy in January 2017. The first is to create a stronger ROK-Japan relationship, stressing the importance of Asia’s two most advanced democracies working together. The second is to leverage the strengths and interests of Tokyo and Seoul into a more functional trilateral arrangement with Washington, so as to promote stability in the region. This includes a reinvigorated North Korea policy, a commitment to upholding freedom of navigation and overflight, and the promotion of liberal values. In doing so, the next American president will work with his or her South Korean and Japanese counterparts to reduce risk in Asia and help ensure the spread of peace and prosperity.