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America’s Window of Opportunity in Asia

Later this week, U.S. President Joe Biden will host Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol at Camp David. The summit comes at a now-or-never moment in relations among the three countries. Missile threats from North Korea and deep concerns about Chinese military capabilities and intentions have motivated the three allies to band together in recent months. But those mutual concerns have existed for decades, and domestic politics—particularly in Seoul and Tokyo—have often prevented the three countries from successfully coordinating their strategies. Right now, however, there is an internationalist American president, a bold South Korean leader with foreign policy ambitions beyond the Korean Peninsula, and a Japanese prime minister bent on cementing Japan’s proactive security policy. This combination presents a unique opportunity for trilateral cooperation, and Biden is seeking to take advantage of it.

Biden’s desire to advance the trilateral relationship reflects his broader approach to geostrategic competition: building U.S. power by strengthening institutions and alliances. The U.S.-Japanese-South Korean relationship has muscle, as it is built around two technologically advanced U.S. allies that possess formidable defense capabilities and together host around 100 permanent U.S. military bases and approximately 80,000 U.S. troops. But owing to a history of colonial occupation and antagonism, Japan and South Korea make for uneasy partners, and getting them to come to terms will not be easy. What is more, the window of opportunity may be closing, so Biden needs to move quickly.


Trilateral cooperation among Japan, South Korea, and the United States has moved in fits and starts over the last three decades, accelerating during heightened periods of North Korean threats and often stumbling whenever relations between South Korea and Japan started to deteriorate.

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Nevertheless, the three-way partnership has come a long way. Efforts to coordinate began in the mid-1990s in response to North Korea’s emerging nuclear program. In 1998, North Korea launched its first multistage ballistic missile over Japan. Although similar provocations from North Korea may seem routine today, back then, they rattled the entire region. That same year, Japan and South Korea took an important step toward healing their shared painful history. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi held a historic meeting in Tokyo, where Obuchi acknowledged Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945 and offered an official apology. This step eased tensions and helped Washington set the stage to advance trilateral relations, eventually institutionalizing the ad hoc meetings under the Trilateral Coordination Oversight Group in 1999.

In 2002, North Korea admitted that it had a covert nuclear weapons program. The so-called six-party talks on North Korean denuclearization, which included China and Russia, began in 2003 and ultimately subsumed Washington’s attempt to strengthen trilateral ties. Meanwhile, historical animosities and domestic politics continued to hobble the Japanese-South Korean leg of the trilateral. For example, in 2012, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made a controversial visit to a set of islands—known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan—that both South Korea and Japan claim as their own, raising tensions between the two countries. In 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a shrine that honors Japan’s war dead, including convicted war criminals, angering South Korea and China.

South Korea exports more than 40 percent of its semiconductors to China.

Despite Seoul-Tokyo tensions, North Korean nuclear tests and U.S. diplomatic prodding helped sustain relations through this period. Following North Korea’s third nuclear test in 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama convened a summit with Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye to present unity in the face of Pyongyang’s aggressive posture. Washington also encouraged Seoul and Tokyo to address the issue of “comfort women,” a euphemistic name for the thousands of Korean women that Japan forced to work as sex slaves during World War II. Obama’s efforts resulted in Park and Abe signing an agreement in 2015 declaring that both countries wanted to see the issue “finally and irreversibly resolved.”

Unfortunately, a shift in domestic political winds in South Korea following the 2017 impeachment of Park reversed many of these gains. Park’s progressive successor, Moon Jae-in, was critical of the deal with Japan on comfort women and scrapped the foundation that the two governments set up with Japanese funding to provide restitution to the victims and their families. In 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered several Japanese companies to compensate unpaid South Korean World War II laborers. This prompted a series of new punitive measures from each side, driving relations to a nadir in 2019.

In 2021, the resumption of North Korean provocations, including a long-range cruise missile test, prompted the Biden administration to once again push forward trilateral meetings. Although there was no leaders meeting, officials from the three countries met ten times in 2021. This did not mean tensions disappeared. At a deputy-level meeting hosted by the United States in November of that year, Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Mori Takeo objected to joining a joint press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun because of disputes over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands. This left U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman awkwardly standing alone at the press conference. “There are some bilateral differences between Japan and the Republic of Korea that are continuing to be resolved,” she noted.


Today, however, the stars have aligned at the regional and domestic levels and the Biden administration is therefore looking to solidify trilateral cooperation while there is still momentum.

Yoon’s decision to prioritize South Korean-Japanese ties despite weak domestic support, matched by Kishida’s pragmatic approach to Korean affairs, has helped dramatically repair the Tokyo-Seoul leg of the relationship. Meanwhile, Biden’s liberal internationalist outlook and his desire to bolster alliances and institutions make him a true champion for trilateral engagement. Several former Obama administration officials now serving under Biden, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, also bring ample experience planning and executing high-level trilateral meetings. Campbell, arguably the biggest driving force behind reinvigorating the three-way relationship, carries decades of experience and deep networks in Japan and South Korea.

But despite the rapid progress made over the past year, future success is not assured. Yoon’s engagement with Japan, although hailed in Washington, has been met with resistance in Seoul. The Democratic Party of Korea, which currently controls the National Assembly and is the main rival of Yoon’s People Power Party, lambasted a deal Yoon struck with Japan on the World War II forced labor issue as the “most humiliating moment” in South Korea’s diplomatic history. And although the next South Korean presidential election is still four years away, the loss of seats in parliamentary elections next year or a change in government following Yoon could once again stall trilateral cooperation. Similarly, Kishida’s weak approval ratings and speculation about the timing of a snap election may also place limits on the potential for making progress should “Korea fatigue” once again take over in Japan.

In the United States, both Democratic and Republican administrations have generally supported trilateral relations. U.S. President Donald Trump’s dismissal of alliances, and his administration’s relatively hands-off approach to worsening relations between Japan and South Korea, however, do not inspire confidence that a Republican president will support trilateral cooperation to the same extent as Biden. In the near term, Biden will be bogged down next year with his reelection campaign and may not have the bandwidth to host another trilateral summit before his term ends. It is therefore imperative for all three leaders to make the most of this moment before the political sands shift again.


The visit to Camp David is especially significant because it will be the first standalone meeting of the three leaders dedicated to trilateral cooperation. Always on the agenda for Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington are new ways to boost deterrence against North Korea. Earlier this year, the three sides agreed to share real-time information on North Korean missile tests. Further details on the exact processes for sharing that information will likely be discussed this week.

The three leaders may also address other potential gaps or misunderstandings related to nuclear contingency planning, including the recently launched bilateral U.S.-South Korean Nuclear Consultative Group, which does not involve Japan. Conversely, South Korea and the United States will want to know more about Japan’s future counterstrike capabilities announced in its 2022 National Security Strategy.

The three sides will also look to build on last November’s Phnom Penh Statement. Economic security cooperation, including supply chain resiliency, remains a high priority for all three countries. South Korea and Japan find themselves in a similar position as they navigate the uncertainty of U.S.-Chinese competition. Despite the recent U.S. endorsement of a de-risking approach to economic relations with China, doubts persist about the will and ability of the Biden administration to keep the focus of its defensive economic measures narrow and well coordinated with allies. These doubts will only grow as the 2024 U.S. election nears and the temptation to appear tough on China grows. Japan and South Korea want to see the United States keep its promises: maintaining a “small yard, high fence,” friend shoring when it comes to supply chains, and consulting with allies.

Differences on China are inevitable. For example, Seoul has navigated its relationship with Beijing more cautiously than either Washington or Tokyo, given the geographic proximity and relatively larger economic stakes in its relations with China. South Korea exports more than 40 percent of its semiconductors to China. Korean firms such as Samsung have large production facilities in China, which recently have been in the crosshairs of the U.S.-Chinese competition. They received temporary waivers to U.S. restrictions on the supply of chip-making equipment, without which the manufacturing facilities would be shut down. Japan’s and South Korea’s initial responses to U.S. export controls levied against China last October have also differed. Japan is more willing than South Korea to tighten its export controls to align with U.S. restrictions.

Finally, Kishida, Yoon, and especially Biden will look for ways to institutionalize cooperation. One possibility is holding a leaders summit annually, or at least formalizing trilateral meetings for national security advisers, which have taken place annually the past three years but on an ad hoc basis. Trilateral cooperation might also be routinized at the deputy or working levels on specific issues such as economic security, energy cooperation, and climate. Institutionalization would help preserve trilateral cooperation even in the face of domestic political change or deterioration in Japanese-South Korean relations.


The Biden administration’s stewardship of this trilateral relationship is reflective of its broader approach to order building in the Indo-Pacific. Through a network of alliances and institutions, the Biden administration believes it can extend its influence and legitimacy and ultimately sustain a rules-based order despite geostrategic competition with China. Campbell and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, previewed this approach in Foreign Affairs in 2019 when they wrote, “The United States will ultimately need to embed its China strategy in a dense network of relationships and institutions in Asia and the rest of the world.”

At the same time, strengthened trilateral cooperation carries the risk of further escalating tensions with North Korea, which will unlikely be in any mood to give up its nuclear weapons or return to talks. This type of coalition building can also provoke China and Russia, which have criticized recent U.S. efforts to strengthen alliances in Europe and Asia. The two countries conducted joint military exercises in the East China Sea in December and the Sea of Japan in July. Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu stated in December that the Russian deployment of a coastal defense missile system in Paramushir, part of Russia’s Kuril Islands, was partly in response to U.S. efforts to contain Russia and China. Shoigu also visited Pyongyang in late July, allegedly requesting more munitions for the war in Ukraine. By deepening trilateral ties and expanding its scope beyond North Korea to the wider Indo-Pacific, the United States may inadvertently push Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang closer, as well.

For this reason, it is important for the United States to elucidate the goals of collaboration and to clearly articulate what the partnership is not. Security cooperation and contingency planning are not geared to produce collective defense commitments, as is the case with NATO. This message will matter not only to the reception that closer trilateral alignment receives in the region but also to how voters in Japan and South Korea feel about the scope and pace of deepening cooperation.

Source : Foreign Affairs