[Viewpoint] The power of trilateralism

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[Viewpoint] The power of trilateralism

By almost any measure we have reached the high water mark of trilateral cooperation among the United States, Korea and Japan. Japanese officers are now participating in U.S.-South Korea military exercises and South Korean officers are observing U.S.-Japan maneuvers.

The three countries’ foreign ministers met Dec. 6 last year and are slated to have further meetings at the ASEAN Regional Forum this summer. The defense ministers will likely also meet on the margins of the Shangri-La defense forum in Singapore around the same time. Intelligence-sharing, diplomatic coordination and military dialogue are stronger than ever before.

This makes perfect sense, given the growing North Korean threat. The United States, South Korea and Japan share common democratic values and are all threatened by Pyongyang’s belligerent provocations, missile programs and nuclear weapons development. Trilateral coordination enhances deterrence against the North and ensures that diplomacy is well coordinated and cannot be manipulated by Pyongyang to exploit any fissures.

Tighter trilateral coordination also puts indirect pressure on Beijing to hold Pyongyang accountable for its actions. As senior U.S. officials have been telling their Chinese counterparts: “We and our allies have to take steps to defend ourselves [.?.?.] you may have objections, but that is the consequence of China’s passive response to the North’s provocations.”

Yes, Beijing has pressed Seoul and Washington to cease these measures, but we should point out to our Chinese colleagues that Beijing also engages in trilateral foreign ministerial meetings with India and Russia, and with Japan and Korea that exclude the United States. China also leads the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which excludes the United States, Korea and Japan.

Trilateralism and minilateralism are part of the fabric of regional institution-building, together with broader inclusive forums like the East Asia Summit or the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings. There is no need to apologize to Beijing and every reason to continue enhancing each of our security postures by coordinating between the U.S.-South Korea and U.S.-Japan alliances.

However, it is also worth recalling that trilateralism has had its ups and downs in the past. The closest coordination probably came during the Korean War, when Japanese minesweepers served directly under the U.S. Navy to help clear the way for U.S. landings at Incheon. Syngman Rhee wanted a collective security arrangement with other U.S. allies, but Washington was wary of having its other alliances being pulled into a conflict, and Shigeru Yoshida in Japan was determined that Japan not have any role in collective security (“collective security” being a commitment that an attack on any party is considered an attack on all).

In 1969, President Richard Nixon coaxed from Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato a public agreement that the defense of Korea is important to Japan, but the Japanese government refused to act on those words. In the 1990s, trilateral coordination began again in earnest, first with quiet trilateral defense and foreign ministerial meetings in Hawaii and then with a full-blown defense trilaterals in Seoul and Washington in 1997.

On the diplomatic side, William Perry inaugurated the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group to ensure alignment of U.S. approaches with Korea and Japan after the August 1998 North Korean Taepodong launch. But then trilateralism fell into disrepair after 2005 as President Roh Moo-hyun feuded with Tokyo over history issues and the U.S. negotiators in the six-party talks emphasized direct bilateral talks with the North unencumbered by trilateral (or often internal U.S.) coordination processes.

Public opinion polls in Korea and Japan today suggest a powerful convergence of views about both North Korea and China, and the governments in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington see trilateral coordination as a strong virtue. However, the fragility beneath the process was evident even as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Kim Sung-hwan and Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara prepared to meet in Washington in December.

Washington and Tokyo wanted the trilateral joint statement to include reference to a collective security understanding with respect to North Korea (that a North Korean attack on one would be viewed as an attack on all three). It was truly unprecedented that Japan was prepared to make such a statement, but it proved a bridge too far for Seoul, given continued domestic Korean sensitivities about Dokdo, the FTA with the U.S. and other issues - even in spite of the positive trends in Korean public attitudes towards both the United States and Japan.

There are also potential land mines ahead. In Japan, the Democratic Party has been relatively more sensitive to Korean views on history, but within parts of the Liberal Democratic Party and smaller conservative Japanese opposition parties there is a view that the government should take a stronger stand on Dokdo (which in Japan is called Takeshima). This stems not from any anti-Korean sentiment, but rather a frustration with how the DPJ government has let China and Russia push Japan around on the Senkaku and Kurile Islands disputes. It would be poor strategy for Japan to throw Korea in with the Russian and Chinese territorial disputes, but the current fluid political environment in Tokyo means anything is possible. Meanwhile, Russia has threatened to invite Chinese and Korean investment in the disputed Northern Territories in order to isolate Japan. Seoul should be extremely careful about enflaming Japanese nationalism by falling for this Russian ploy. Moscow, after all, benefits when Japan-Korea-U.S. ties are weaker.

In other words, the momentum behind trilateral U.S.-Korea-Japan security cooperation is strong and there are obvious benefits to all three nations’ foreign and defense policies by staying on this course. But great vigilance and domestic diplomacy is necessary to ensure unwelcome irritants do not undercut the important solidarity being shown in the face of North Korea’s dangerous behavior.

*The writer is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

By Michael Green
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