U.S, Japan, And South Korea Trilateral Alliance Strengthens Amid Rising Regional Tensions

During the Camp David summit, U.S. President Joe Biden, along with the leaders of South Korea and Japan, committed to strengthening military and economic collaboration.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, Republic of Korea (ROK) Minister of National Defense Shin Wonsik, and Japanese Minister of Defense Kihara Minoru held a Trilateral Ministerial Meeting on Monday (Nov 12). Secretary Austin and Minister Shin convened in Seoul, South Korea, while Minister Kihara participated virtually. The participants addressed common regional security issues and assessed the progress of collaborative security initiatives established during the Camp David Summit on August 18.

During the Camp David summit, U.S. President Joe Biden, along with the leaders of South Korea and Japan, committed to strengthening military and economic collaboration. In their collective statement, they condemned China’s “dangerous and aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea. The summit aimed to demonstrate solidarity among the key U.S. allies in Asia, namely South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, as a response to the increasing influence of China and nuclear threats posed by North Korea.

The Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) between South Korea and the United States on Monday offered initial insights into the implementation of an agreement reached in August during a summit at Camp David involving the United States, Japan, and South Korea. While the SCM traditionally concentrates on strategies to deter North Korea, the agenda was anticipated to broaden following the trilateral summit. This summit outlined a security partnership that binds Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo, according to Kim Joon-hyung, former head of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

Following the 55th Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in Seoul, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin released an 18-clause joint communique. The document highlighted a shared understanding between both parties regarding the critical role of U.S.-South Korea security cooperation in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific. Austin and Shin underscored the significance of fostering peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, reiterating a sentiment previously articulated in an April joint statement made during a summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean leader Yoon Suk-yeol in Washington. This statement commemorated the 70th anniversary of the alliance established in 1953, a few months after the armistice to cease hostilities in the Korean War.

Tensions from the North

A recent study conducted by the Atlantic Council think tank, involving insights from over 100 experts and published last week, suggests that the evolving capabilities and intentions of North Korea and China could pose a substantial risk of undermining U.S. and South Korean deterrence in the coming decade. The group has recommended substantial measures to enhance its deterrence capabilities.
While an outright nuclear attack was deemed the least probable scenario, the study suggests that Pyongyang might be encouraged to escalate through more restrained military actions, including the potential use of nuclear strikes.

Zhan Debin, the director and professor of the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies at the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics, has expressed to the Global Times that the implementation of the “multi-year trilateral exercise plan” agreed upon by the defense ministers of the US, Japan, and South Korea is expected to heighten tension in Northeast Asia. He emphasized that if tension rises in this region, South Korea will be the most significantly impacted country. Consequently, South Korea should be keenly aware of how regional developments can affect its interests.

The United States has long aimed to consolidate the U.S.-Japan alliance and the U.S.-South Korea alliance into a broader U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance. This objective is steadily progressing through the institutionalization of trilateral cooperation, signaling the potential onset of a “new cold war” in Northeast Asia and raising concerns about the emergence of group confrontations.

The collaborative military framework involving the United States, Japan, and South Korea is expanding, with recent joint military exercises between the Philippine Marine Corps and the US Marine Corps marking the formal inclusion of Japan and South Korea for the first time. Zhan suggests that the frequency of cooperation between the U.S., Japan, and South Korea in the South China Sea is on the rise, indicating a U.S. intention to establish an “Asian version of NATO” based on this collaboration.

This trilateral cooperation is causing unease among other regional countries, raising concerns about the emerging trend. Importantly, it is viewed as potentially dangerous for Japan and South Korea, given their location in Northeast Asia and their deep integration with the security and prosperity of the region.