Moreover, the belief held by some South Koreans that there is no cost to bad relations with Tokyo is wrong. Two major new initiatives in East Asia-the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) an alliance that unites Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, and Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy-moved forward without South Korea in no small part because of its poor relations with Japan. Joining together with Tokyo and Washington would not just bolster South Korea’s policies to deter North Korea but also serve Yoon’s aspiration for South Korea to play a pivotal role in everything from supply chains to development assistance-areas in which Seoul’s two allies are key players.
For Yoon, improving trilateral relations with the United States and Japan would provide the strongest possible foundation for dealing with China
For Kishida, trilateral cooperation would be good for “realism diplomacy,” as he described his foreign policy approach in a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June. No country in Asia has been more affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than Japan, which for years under the late prime minister Shinzo Abe assiduously sought to build a cooperative relationship with Putin in a vain attempt to secure the return of the Northern Territories, four islands off Japan’s northernmost prefecture that Russia occupied in the waning days of World War II.
Kishida’s bold response to the war in Ukraine-imposing sweeping financial sanctions and export controls on Moscow and offering robust assistance to Kyiv-effectively flipped the table on years of Japanese foreign policy. But Japan now faces a regional security environment more challenging than at any time since World War II. In his speech in June, Kishida called for “strengthening the rules-based free and open international order” and closer cooperation on economic issues, such as supply chain and infrastructure resilience. All these goals would benefit from trilateral cooperation and closer ties with South Korea.
Biden, Kishida, and Yoon deserve credit for being forward-leaning in their support of trilateralism. Even in the absence of clear deliverables, the mere fact that the meeting in Madrid took place sends a powerful message to the citizens and bureaucracies in Japan and South Korea that trilateral cooperation is a priority. But the meeting must be followed by action.
A Plan of Action
First, the three allies should reinvigorate the Trilateral Consultation and Oversight Group that was created during U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration to coordinate policy and manage contingencies regarding North Korea. The three countries should also revitalize and expand defense cooperation. During the administration of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the three allies had begun to execute a regular program of trilateral military exercises. But the exercises ended five years ago, when disputes over World War II history returned to the forefront of Japanese-Korean relations under former South Korean President Moon Jae-in. In addition to resuming missile warning and tracking exercises-in which the three navies practice data sharing on a simulated launch utilizing a common ballistic missile defense radar system- the three countries should conduct exercises and training in areas such as maritime surveillance, interdiction, and antisubmarine warfare. They should begin sending observers to bilateral exercises in Japan and South Korea and establish liaison offices with uniformed personnel at Republic of Korea-U.Sbined Forces Command in Seoul and U.S. Forces Japan headquarters west of Tokyo to facilitate regular information exchange. And they should consider establishing a trilateral dialogue on strengthening extended deterrence in the region to supplement the bilateral dialogues that are underway.
Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington should also collaborate on economic issues, including efforts to shore up critical supply chains. The newly established U.S.-Japan Economic Policy Consultative Committee, chaired by the State and Commerce Departments with Japanese counterparts at the Foreign and Trade Ministries, could serve as a model. Each member has a great deal to offer on everything from global health to advanced technologies, such as semiconductors. The recent participation of Japan and South Korea in the U.S.-led Minerals Security Partnership was a useful step in this direction.