By Ramon Pacheco-Pardo
South Korea-United States-Japan trilateral cooperation
South Korea, the United States and Japan have been expanding trilateral cooperation rapidly in recent months. This was most clearly symbolised by the Spirit of Camp David joint statement issued by Yoon Suk-yeol, Joe Biden and Kishida Fumio following their summit meeting on August 18th. This was the first trilateral summit between the leaders of South Korea, the United States and Japan not held on the sidelines of some other gathering. Security and foreign policy cooperation between the three countries at the trilateral level can be traced back to the 1990s. It has continued since then. In spite of ups and downs over the years, the direction of travel towards closer ties between the three countries has become clear over time. Having said that, were the Camp David joint statement to be implemented in full, trilateral political, military, economic, technology and intelligence ties all the way from the leader level to the working level would reach new heights.
Why is South Korea pursuing trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan?
There are multiple reasons why South Korea is pursuing trilateralism with the United States and Japan. The direct threat that it feels from North Korea and China arguably is the key driver behind its push for trilateralism. The threat from North Korea is well-known and ranges from its conventional capabilities to its nuclear and missile programme to cyber-attacks. In the case of China, relations between Seoul and Beijing have deteriorated in recent years following the high point marked by Park Geun-hye’s attending China’s end of World War II anniversary celebrations in 2015. The Moon Jae-in government, especially following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Yoon government have become more vocal about the threat that they perceive from China’s behaviour. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only heightened South Korean fears, with evermore open discussions about the direct impact that a similar move by China on Taiwan would have for South Korea and East Asia more broadly.
In addition, South Korea has been strengthening ties with ‘like-minded’ partners, as epitomised by its presence in two of the last three G7 summits and the last two NATO summits. Taiwan aside, no country in East Asia is as close to South Korea in terms of values as Japan. This has facilitated trilateral cooperation also including the United States. In the case of the Yoon government, the president himself and multiple other officials have openly stated that South Korea should pursue closer cooperation with countries with which Seoul shares values. While this value-based approach to foreign policy certainly has its limits and is being applied inconsistently, as is the case for other democracies, it is true that South Korea is pursuing a values-based policy when possible. In this sense, Kishida’s invitation to Yoon to attend the Hiroshima G7 summit last May was helpful in further serving to cement bilateral and trilateral ties.
Another important reason why Seoul is pursuing trilateralism with Washington and Tokyo is to help lock in this type of cooperation ahead of the US presidential election scheduled for November 2024. Similarly to other US allies, South Korea fears the return of Donald Trump or the election of a Trump-like president—someone who will openly undermine US relations with its closest partners. From the Yoon government’s perspective, trilateral cooperation also involving Japan should withstand the vagaries of US domestic politics—or Japan’s and South Korea’s own changes in leadership in the future. In this sense, the wide range of joint cooperation initiatives, meetings and projects envisioned in the Camp David joint statement should help, if fully implemented, to at the very least lock in strong and wide-ranging working-level cooperation.
What are the implications for South Korea of trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan?
For South Korea, the main implication of trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan is the strengthening of its traditional, economic and technology security. As cases in point, trilateral missile defence, maritime or nuclear deterrence exercises and exchanges, intelligence sharing or defence minister-level talks help South Korea to better counter the threats that it feels from North Korea and China. Meanwhile, proposed cooperation in the areas of economics and technology should help South Korean firms to better withstand competition from their Chinese counterparts, as well as to continue to diversify away from the Chinese market. The Yoon government seems to have decided that its security, understood in a holistic way, is better served by trilateralism as opposed to bilateral cooperation with the United States only.
Another implication of trilateral cooperation is that it supports the idea that South Korea is ‘choosing sides’ in the context of Sino-American competition. Certainly, no mainstream South Korean policy-maker is advocating economic decoupling from China or diplomatic isolation of Seoul’s neighbour. But Seoul is now openly criticising Beijing, as stated above, and is also joining a string of US initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), the Critical Minerals Partnership (CMP), the Chip-4 Alliance also involving Japan and Taiwan or regular multilateral naval exercises in the waters of the Indo-Pacific. This underscores the idea that South Korea is comfortable with openly working together with its ally, the United States, in its competition with China. Furthermore, South Korea has been one of the few countries outside of NATO openly providing diplomatic, economic and military support to Ukraine as it faces Russia’s invasion. This further underlines the notion that South Korea is siding with democracies in their confrontation with autocracies, even if Seoul does not put it this way.
Another important implication of South Korea’s trilateralism with the United States and Japan is that it will boost security ties with other parties. Australia, Canada, the EU or the UK are among the many actors contemplating the possibility of engaging in quadrilateral cooperation with South Korea, the United States and Japan, whether openly or in private. NATO, meanwhile, is rapidly expanding ties with the Asia Pacific or AP-4 group involving South Korea, Australia, Japan and New Zealand. And there is talk of a de facto G7 Plus involving South Korea, Australia and perhaps India also working together on economic and security matters. Better South Korea-Japan ties makes it easier for other countries and institutions to look for ways to strengthen links with Seoul, whether at the bilateral level or as part of minilateral frameworks. This is thus an added benefit for South Korea.