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US, South Korea and Japan look to ‘institutionalize’ ties

President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
August 19, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. President Joe Biden hosts his Japanese and South Korean counterparts on Friday in a major step toward “institutionalizing” ties between the countries toward a more tangible trilateral alliance.

Beijing has slammed the summit at Camp David, Maryland, as part of a ploy by the United States to establish a “mini-NATO” in Asia.

This time, though, it’s not China that’s the impetus for the three leaders to push their alliances into something more concrete. It’s not even North Korea and its increased nuclear-weapons testing.

It’s fears, experts say, that former President Donald Trump – or another candidate with similar foreign-policy views – could return to the White House and rebuff an active U.S. role in North Asia.

“Both capitals will be looking very carefully at our election and the possibility we may have a transition in leadership at the top,” said Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, at a preview of the summit hosted by the think tank on Tuesday.

The United States, Smith said, had long been “proactive in trying to encourage better bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo,” but “the Trump administration really didn’t focus much on that” and left Tokyo-Seoul ties to struggle as it pursued an “America First” policy.

That led to a reckoning, said Scott Synder, an expert on Korea at the Council on Foreign Relations, which has now culminated in Camp David and the plans for a more concrete tripartite alliance.

“One of the motivations in both South Korea and Japan for pursuing institutionalization,” Snyder said, “would be precisely to hedge against political uncertainty in the United States.”


It’s not yet clear what “institutionalization” of tripartite ties means.

Reuters reported on Monday that Friday’s summit was unlikely to produce a formal security arrangement between the three countries, but could produce a “three-way hot line,” as well as an in-principle deal to forge closer security ties and a pledge for annual meetings.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shed little light on what an “institutional” approach would mean on Tuesday.

“What you can expect to see coming out of this summit is collaboration on a trilateral basis that is further institutionalized in a variety of ways, to include regular meetings at a variety of levels – senior levels – in our governments,” Blinken told reporters.

At the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Tokyo, said the summit’s aim is to broadly “embed” changes so they are “not just dependent on these three leaders.”

“The goal here is,” he said, “that this becomes the new normal, and that you weave it into the DNA of all the institutions – whether it’s intelligence, security, political, diplomatic, economic – and that no one country, or no one future leader, rolls that rock back down the hill.”

Fragile alliance

It’s not only the prospect of Trump’s return that has put closer tripartite ties in the face of Beijing and Pyongyang at longer-term risk.

South Korean President Yoon Seok-youl and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida – who held their nations’ first bilateral summit in over a decade in March – face their own domestic issues.

Yoon, for instance, won power last year pledging closer military ties with the United States and Japan – South Korea’s historical enemy – but has quickly fallen in popularity, and has not had an approval rating above 26% in over a year, according to Morning Consult tracking.

“It’s fair to say that in South Korea, President Yoon’s efforts are still not widely popular,” said Christopher Johnstone, a former director for East Asia on Biden’s National Security Council and now the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“In Japan,” he said, “there’s this constant refrain of skepticism that the improvement will be durable and that there’s the risk that a future [South Korean] president could flip the table over again.”

That means there now exists what could be a small sliver of opportunity for Biden, Yoon and Kishida to cement some planks of long-term security cooperation, even if it’s only a beginning.

“The focus of this meeting,” Johnstone said, “is to look for ways to institutionalize the progress that’s been made, and to make it harder for future leaders in any of these countries to walk away from it.”

Asian ‘mini-NATO’

Despite the vagueness of the plans announced so far, Beijing, which has long opposed what it says are U.S. plans to create a NATO-style military alliance in Asia, has voiced its opposition to the summit.

“China opposes relevant countries assembling exclusionary groupings, and practices that intensify antagonism and undermine the strategic security of other countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a press briefing on Tuesday.

The Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, also criticized the summit as a push toward something bigger.

“On the surface, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea are under the banner of ‘countering North Korea’s growing nuclear threat,’” the editorial said, “but in fact, it has always been U.S.’ desire to build a ‘mini-NATO-style’ trilateral military alliance in Northeast Asia.”

U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel on Tuesday denied any such plans exist and said the summit should not be seen “as any kind of step” toward a NATO-style bloc.

But that does not mean it won’t be historical, said Kurt Campbell, Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, at the Brookings Institution, noting it was Biden’s first time hosting foreign leaders at Camp David.

“We are seeking not just to lock-in Japan and South Korea for the future, but the United States as well,” he said. “We’re going to try to embed this in our politics in such a way that it will be hard [to change things back] for any leader in either of the three countries.”