Having identified competition with China as the administration’s “pacing challenge,” the Joe Biden administration has industriously promoted new forms of institutional collaboration with like-minded allies and partners: first, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) alongside Australia, India, and Japan; next, the Australia-United Kingdom-U.S. (AUKUS) partnership intended to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia and deepen cutting-edge cooperation on military technological innovation among the three countries; and now, a U.S.-Japan-South Korea summit in which the parallel security aims of two consequential Northeast Asian allies have converged with those of the United States in an effort to uphold the rules-based international order.
The Biden administration has worked hard to bring Japan and South Korea together and to encourage both sides to set aside historical animosities. In addition, the shock waves from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and fears that a revisionist contagion might embolden Chinese or North Korean coercion in the Indo-Pacific region have aligned Japanese and South Korean security anxieties with the Biden administration’s aims. But nothing significantly moved until the March 2022 election of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who championed his intent to prioritize stabilizing South Korea’s relationship with Japan. Yoon moved decisively last November to join Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Biden in an expansive statement of common security and economic interests on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Then, Yoon pushed forward a financing plan that sought private sector contributions to remunerate South Korean victims of World War II-era forced labor at the hands of Japanese companies. The solution set the foundation for normalizing relations with Japan, securing a highly effective state visit to Washington in April, and scoring an invitation to the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Hiroshima this past May.
But Yoon’s deal may not survive a South Korean political transition to a progressive administration. And security experts from South Korea and Japan wonder aloud whether current levels of coordination with the United States will be sustained following the U.S. presidential election next year. Thus, the Biden administration has pushed to institutionalize trilateral coordination in an attempt to “lock in” both allies and future U.S. leaderships to a collective commitment to bolster a rules-based as opposed to a force-based Indo-Pacific security order. The institutionalization of trilateralism also compartmentalizes such cooperation from bilateral disputes and distances the United States from having to play a mediating role between Japan and South Korea. The three-way stand-alone summit is intended to signal a collective security commitment among the United States, Japan, and South Korea. China’s Global Times has characterized the gathering as a “mini-NATO style” trilateral security alliance.
The trilateral communique is reported to address not only security coordination, but also economic and development cooperation and people-to-people exchanges that would tie the three countries together more deeply than any currently existing cooperative agreement in Asia. The redirection of bureaucratic energy and government budgets toward institutionalizing trilateral coordination would be intended as a booster shot for the two seven-decade-old bilateral alliances that are facing strong headwinds in the face of possible Chinese economic coercion and China’s political aspiration of regional centrality.
The three leaders may be adept at targeting China without explicitly mentioning China, but the other unspoken reality is that China and North Korea have historically been more adept at unintentionally stimulating cohesion among the three allies than splitting them apart. In this sense, the real threat to effective trilateralism continues to lie in the respective domestic political environments of the three countries given deepening domestic political polarization, especially in the domestic politics of the United States and South Korea, and its impact on the continuity of foreign policy during political leadership transitions. Will the new faces at future trilateral summits hold the same views or will they generate gaps that neutralize U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral aspirations, no matter how grand? Only time will tell.