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Japan-USA-ROK Relations at an Inflection Point in History

By Frank Jannuzi
Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation
March 24, 2023
With the easing of COVID-19 travel restrictions, the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation resumed in-person meetings and travel to Asia last year, including five program missions to Japan and half a dozen trips to other nations, including the Republic of Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and Thailand. Although the Foundation managed to sustain relationships virtually during the height of the pandemic, there is no substitute for “being there” if one wants to gain a more in-depth understanding of where things are and where they may be headed.

The Foundation began 2023 where we left off, bringing five members of Congress to Tokyo and Seoul under the auspices of the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission (JUSFC) Thomas Foley Legislative Exchange. The Members of Congress held bilateral and trilateral dialogue designed to foster mutual understanding about our common goals and deepen cooperation to achieve them. I emerge from those deliberations both grim and hopeful: grim, because the rules-based liberal democratic order itself is under assault; hopeful, because Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States have the capacity to buttress that order in partnership with other key allies across the Indo-Pacific and Europe, and it seems that President Biden, Prime Minister Kishida, and President Yoon are intent on doing so.

A long “To Do” list…

Although the Japan, South Korea, and the United States confront many obstacles, none is as grave as the threat posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s unjustified aggression has caused enormous damage – as many as 200,000 casualties (according to U.S. government estimates) and hundreds of billions of dollars of damage to Ukrainian cities. Putin’s assault on Ukraine has ramifications far beyond Europe, including skyrocketing energy and food prices, supply chain disruptions, and a weakening of the global norm that disputes should be settled peacefully. Ensuring that Russia’s attack on Ukraine fails and that Ukraine can emerge whole, united, and free, should be the top priority for freedom-loving nations of the world. No nation should aid Russia’s aggression, and it is shameful that China as a permanent member of the UN Security Council has failed to condemn it. Every nation should make some contribution to Ukraine’s defense and the welfare of the Ukrainian people, each according to their ability.

But of course the war in Ukraine is not the only hot spot requiring attention. The DPRK test-fired more than 70 ballistic missiles during the past twelve months, including an ICBM launched into to the waters just west of Japan in mid-February. Pyongyang has rebuffed offers of dialogue, and appears to be exploiting divisions among the nations of the “Six Party Talks” to advance their nuclear ambitions. China has stepped up the tempo of its military operations near Taiwan in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea, and has sharpened its rhetoric against the United States for interfering in China’s “internal affairs.” U.S.-China relations are deteriorating, undermined not only by specific incidents, such as the Chinese espionage balloon which traversed much of the United States before being shot down off the coast of South Carolina, but also by the growing perception among U.S. policy makers that China seeks to overturn the rules-based international order.

As if these security hot spots were not sufficient, the Indo-Pacific region must also grapple with the lingering impact of COVID-19, an energy crisis (exacerbated by the slow restart of Japan’s nuclear power plants after the 3/11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami), inflationary pressures, and the long-term challenges associated with demographics and climate change.
Nuclear power plant at Kashiwazaki Kariwa in Japan
Despite all of this, I emerge from a week in Tokyo and Seoul impressed that there is no sense of panic, but there is an awareness that the region, indeed the world, appears to be at what President Biden has called an “inflection point.” Neither the war in Ukraine nor the security crisis on the Korean Peninsula is on a path to early resolution, and other long-term challenges require long-term solutions. Nonetheless, the decisions leaders make this year are likely to shape the future of the liberal democratic order for decades to come.

…That calls out for multilateral cooperation

The “to do” list is long, but tackling it will be made easier if like-minded nations work together. I am struck by the close alignment among Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States when it comes to their understanding of the challenges and their willingness to devote time, energy, and resources to address them. To wit:

  • ·       All share a commitment to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region that is peaceful and stable.
  • ·       All are determined to strengthen regional security, with a special focus on shoring up the extended deterrence (i.e. the United States “nuclear umbrella”) and dissuading any party from trying to change the status quo unilaterally or to use coercion to accomplish their aims.
  • ·       All appreciate the urgent need to reverse the erosion of democratic governance.
  • ·       All have announced ambitious targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and mitigate the damage of climate change.
  • ·       All hope to improve their supply chain resiliency, especially on vital inputs such as semiconductors.
  • ·       And all have affirmed their commitment to promoting human security during this, the 75th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Seizing the day

The alignment of interests among the three partners presents a golden opportunity to accelerate progress along many axes simultaneously. Top priorities should include the following:

  • ·       To thwart Russia’s aggression, the partners can, and must, do more, to provide Ukraine with the weapons, training, humanitarian aid, and financial support it needs to prevail in its war with Russia and expel all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory.
  • ·       On North Korea, Tokyo, Seoul, and Washington should respond to Pyongyang’s repeated violations of UN sanctions with a two-pronged approach that pairs enhanced trilateral security cooperation to strengthen deterrence with fresh diplomatic initiatives to illuminate a pathway for North Korea to achieve its legitimate security interests without possessing nuclear weapons.
  • ·       On China, Japan-ROK-US should not close the door on engagement. The nations of the Indo-Pacific do not desire a new Cold War, and zero-sum thinking distorts reality and could lead to a “vicious cycle” of deteriorating US-China relations.
  • ·       On trade and the environment, the “ideal outcome” would be US and ROK accession to the CPTPP, but for now, the more realistic option is to use IPEF to accelerate the transition to clean energy and shore up vulnerable supply chains by eliminating sole source dependency and ensuring a reliable source of key inputs, including semiconductors.
  • ·       On values, Japan, the ROK, and the United States should “double down” on their commitment to defend universal human rights, particularly the rights of women and children. They should promote gender equality and combat all forms of discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals. Such efforts not only shore up democratic governance at home, but also accentuate the contrast with authoritarian regimes.

  • Of course there are obstacles to accomplishing this level of cohesion and cooperation, including not only resource constraints, but also political hurdles stemming from the history of Japan’s colonial rule over Korea and its aftermath. But such difficulties must not be allowed to block the realization of the benefits to the liberal democratic order that would flow from a thriving Japan-ROK-US triangle. Officials from Japan and the ROK are making progress on issues of concern, with the U.S. offering its “good offices” to facilitate comprehensive rapprochement. Leaders in all three capitals should finish the job.
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