The ongoing strategic, economic and militaristic partnership between the United States, Japan and South Korea remains underappreciated, despite its powerful and changing role. With elevated tensions in the region as President Barack Obama vowed to enact new sanctions against North Korea in light of their recent nuclear warhead tests within Japan’s air defense identification zone, an allegiance between the three nations could pave the way for a new world order.
Already, the U.S. has been building a missile defense system in South Korea; the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, situated on the Korean peninsula, is a major threat to China and other major-players in the region. However, although Chinese anxiety over THAAD has contributed to the volatile status of multilateral relationships in the region, others have fostered thanks to this new dynamic.
Specifically, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea have been able to interact in a way that, for the sake of historical reconciliation alone, makes the joint endeavor worthwhile. The recent agreement between Japan and South Korea on “comfort women” has gone a long way in amending decades-old wounds between the two U.S. allies. During the 1930s and 1940s, Korean women women were used as military prostitutes by members of the Japanese Imperial Army—reprehensible actions being ever so slightly remediated by a deal between Japan and South Korea to offer financial support and an apology to the women.
The trilateral relationship between the three nations is an avenue to share security costs while maximizing mutual benefits. Given how the Korean Peninsula is the “de facto front line, the strategic buffer, for the security of Japan” as explained by Daniel Sneider of the National Bureau of Asian Research, both parties would benefit from moving on from historic animosity a 1954 report from the National Security Council characterized as an “ingrained Korean fear and suspicion of Japan, and the equally fundamental Japanese sense of superiority over the Koreans.”
North Korean aggression has been instrumental in forging trilateral engagement between the U.S., Japan and South Korea; in June 2016, the nations conducted a joint-missile-tracking drill off Hawaii—yet another bold push by the Obama administration to flex its joint military capabilities to the unexcited North Koreans. However, combatting instability with the North Koreans is just the beginning for this power-trio. With joint-vested interests that span towards the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, where Indian and Russian influences are altering historic maritime power dynamics, it is not difficult to see the relevance of a superpower trio with potent vertical and maritime identities.
Still, there remains a lot to be understood concerning these three nations’ stance on deterrence measures, their balance of power, and interdependent defense postures and reforms. How far can each exert influence in the region and when will their interests inevitably conflict? When will extensive U.S. interest in the area infringe on the balance of powers Japan and South Korea would prefer? Where will their efforts for collaboration hone in on after North Korea, and how will those executive decisions be made? How can specifically Japan and South Korea leverage their power to promote even more stability? These are but a few of the questions the three allies, facing the watchful eye of the international community, must beg to answer. In the meantime, the current trajectory appears to dynamically engage the nations and capitalize on their shared desires for a new Asian world order, regardless of obstacles to arise.
Next steps for improved cooperation will be the most multi-faceted of approaches. Navigating a bedraggled historical backdrop to Japanese-Korean relations, the U.S. must lead the conversation around traditional military issues while including non-traditional security vulnerabilities such as cyber security, humanitarian relief and energy security. The U.S. already has an advantage it can leverage in its ideational balance of power. As research by the Center for a New American Security has demonstrated, Asian regional norms indicate broad support for the U.S. and “open regionalism,” meaning universal norms and economic integration are welcomed. Furthermore, the three nations must dare to cautiously challenge China’s efforts “to shape the regional normative agenda through exclusive groupings that the region’s democracies will naturally caucus to ensure that the direction of regional integration continues to reinforce what Japanese officials call “principles” multilateralism,” as prescribed by Daniel Twining of the German Marshall Fund and Michael J. Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In effect, trilateral consultations need be all-encompassing: from detaching conflicting interests and competition with China, to circumnavigating identity politics given the histories of Japan and South Korea, to greater cognizance on part of the U.S. concerning the fact that its two allies are more concerned with promoting stability with China, to standardized (and frequented) communication channels between the nations, and more.
Although the two major U.S. presidential party nominees have failed to demonstrate plans to divert from or continue with the current administration's path, (due in part to political obligations and the sensationalized nature of their campaigns’ talking points), the next few months will soon see a greater public (and private) interest in allyship and geopolitical conflicts of the Asia-Pacific. Regardless, partnership with democratic Asian states is a truly bipartisan manner will go a long way for all parties.
For now till the dubious fate of all Americans comes in the November elections, this trilateral relationship should continue to be a cornerstone for American foreign policy, if and only if our interests truly are vested with the preservation of global stability and diplomacy as a tool for cooperation. As tensions rise in the South China Sea with the Chinese government continuing its military and geographic development in the area despite reprimands from the international community, this trio should be enough to quell the region’s tensions and pave a new way forward for multilateral relationships globally.
Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, “in formation,” runs on alternate Mondays.