Cementing U.S.-Japan-ROK security ties a long way to go: expert

The leaders of the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) met at Camp David on Friday, inaugurating what they call "a new era of trilateral partnership."

The meeting, the first time that the three leaders have ever met outside the context of a larger summit, pledged to strengthen a trilateral security cooperation in response to threats that jeopardize Asia-Pacific peace and stability. However, to realize such a vision, which is actually based on U.S.' intention, may still have a long way to go, according to experts.

Cooperation at U.S.' intention

Three documents were issued as outcomes of the "first-ever stand-alone summit."

One is Camp David Principles, the guidance to advance their three-way security cooperation, which highlights that it is aimed at promoting regional peace and stability and opposing any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion.

The Spirit of Camp David lists series of institutionalized new official exchanges, including an annual Trilateral Indo-Pacific Dialogue to coordinate implementation of their regional approaches.

It also expounds their stance on the issues of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), claims China's behavior in South China Sea as "dangerous and aggressive," reaffirms the U.S.' extended deterrence commitments to both Japan and the ROK and agrees to deepen cooperation on supply chain resilience, particularly on semiconductors and batteries, as well as on technology security and standards.

"It can be seen that the principles and spirit of Camp David are essentially a reaffirmation by the United States of its traditional interests in the Asia-Pacific region and a public statement of its emerging interests," Yan Zhanyu, a scholar on global governance from the School of International Relations at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, told CGTN.

By aligning Japan and the ROK, the U.S. re-emphasized its traditional geopolitical interests, i.e., ensuring the status quo in the Asia-Pacific region by measures including intensifying restrictions on the DPRK and escalating its intervention in the South China Sea to contain China, said Yan.

"On the other hand, by strengthening coordination with Japan and the ROK in areas of industrial supply chain, cutting-edge technology and other emerging areas, the U.S. intends to create a 'de-Chinaization' of the Asia-Pacific economic and technological system, accelerating the process of decoupling from China, in order to serve its own economic interests," he added.

In terms of the third "outcome," Commitment to Consult, which makes it clear that it is "not intended to give rise to rights or obligations under international or domestic law," Yan said that it shows that security cooperation among the three countries remains at the framework stage, and currently, the promotion of understanding is a realistic goal for them.

"As there are still contradictions among the three parties, the U.S. cannot reach a substantive military cooperation agreement through a summit in one go. Therefore, it firstly introduced the Principles and Spirit of Camp David to guide Japan and the ROK to recognize its current interests in the Asia-Pacific region, which pave the way for a future specific strategic deployment and cooperation upgrade," said Yan.

'A long way to go'

Officials from the three countries have repeatedly expressed their high expectation before and after the summit on intensified trilateral security ties, however, experts doubted there will be any tangible cooperation due to bilateral rifts.

According to Yan, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol's inclination to the U.S. stems from domestic political pressures they are both facing.

Kishida's leadership could be challenged at the end of the year when Japan calls for interim parliamentary elections, while Yoon, who has suffered from low approval ratings since taking office in May last year, may also face challenge in the parliamentary elections next spring.

"Therefore, they need a 'shot in the arm' to boost public support and earn themselves political capital," said Yan, adding the olive branch thrown by the U.S. is at the right time as Kishida and Yoon can shift domestic economic and social problems to China by coordinating with the U.S. to hype regional issues including the DPRK and China, so that they can get a breathing space.

But contradictions between Japan and the ROK may prevent a closer trilateral alliance in the region that the U.S. has longed for, according to many observers.

Historically, Japan's aggression against the ROK has stamped in the memories of ROK people, unsolved problems of comfort women and forced labor during that time, and simmering territorial disputes have all hindered reconciliation between the two countries.

Currently, Japan's decision to discharge nuclear-contaminated wastewater from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the sea and its semiconductor sanctions against the ROK also provoked protests by the latter.

Yoon's recent goodwill to Japan and his unilateral concessions, despite winning a positive response from Kishida, have further annoyed the ROK's masses and many politicians, who blasted him as a "puppet traitor."

"It is still too early to talk about comprehensive reconciliation between Japan and the ROK, and the current warming of bilateral relations is more a phased performance of Yoon's all-round pursuit of the U.S. Asia-Pacific policy," said Yan.

According to Ukeru Magosaki, director of East Asian Community Institute, Japan and the ROK's economic engagement with China is far greater than that of the United States, when the U.S. uses Japan to counter the DPRK and China, Japan will pay the fiddler while the U.S. can stay out of it.

Interests divergence between the U.S. and the ROK may also rise if the security cooperation strengthens in the future.

"Strategically, ROK's core national interest is to ensure its security against threats from the DPRK. While Yoon adopted a 'one-sided' policy towards the U.S., he actually gave up the option of peaceful settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue through multilateralism, but instead enhancing force deterrence against the DPRK by cementing the military alliance with the U.S.," said Yan, adding the U.S. is happy to see this, because it will reinforce the ROK's dependence on the U.S., and provide the U.S. with more opportunities to disrupt the situation in the Asia-Pacific region, stir up hostility against China and further isolate it.

Noting the bilateral contradictions were actually temporarily covered up at the summit, Yan said that "the realization of the three countries' institutionalized collective security vision still has a long way to go."

(Cover: U.S. President Joe Biden at a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol after their trilateral summit meeting at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, the U.S., August 18, 2023. /CFP)

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