This new year has witnessed a number of remarkable events in the current stage of the “Great World Game”, one of which was the event in the format of the US-Japan-ROK dialogue held on January 5 in Washington. We are talking about a meeting between the deputy heads of the foreign affairs departments of the three countries mentioned.
It should be noted that Washington has been nurturing the idea of creating a full-fledged military-political union from this structure over the past two decades. However, all efforts made in this regard were in vain until mid-2022. Mainly for several reasons (which were discussed many times in the Independent External Evaluation report) related to the relationship between the latter two countries, each of which (we will emphasize this circumstance) is an ally of the United States.
Often you can get a general idea of the status of a particular political problem from a simple artistic image (illustration) to an analytical article. Or even based on a good photo of the participants in another attempt to resolve long-standing “misunderstandings.” That things were not going very well could be seen from the facial expressions in a decade-old photo of the Japanese Prime Minister and the ROK president, sitting on either side of the optimistic US President Barack Obama. The above photo was taken at the end of a trilateral meeting held in March 2014 in the Hague during an international event. During this meeting, the American president made an optimistic speech regarding the prospects of the discussed structure.
And such a purely intuitive impression was confirmed more than once during some subsequent joint ritual and protocol procedures. For example, the heavily built M. Pompeo, that is, the US Secretary of State who served in the Trump administration, almost forcibly pulls out his reluctant (frail) colleagues from Japan and South Korea to take a group photo, who got (again by random chance) to the same place at the same time.
These two last mentioned countries “resisted” until, we repeat, the beginning of the summer of 2022, when Yoon Suk Yeol assumed the presidency. He gradually began to divert the foreign policy course of the ship of state from a more or less neutral line in the field of forces formed by two main neighbors, that is, Japan and China, towards the first. However, trying not to spoil relations with the latter, but so far without success.
That the rather thick ice in Japanese-South Korean relations would gradually begin to melt could be judged by the first statements of the new President of the Republic of Korea, who declared his intention to positively resolve issues of a “historical nature.” By the way, it should be noted that issues of this kind are usually brought to the fore by state propaganda for some current purposes of both foreign and domestic policy. That is, they are either indirectly relevant to real history or have no relation at all.
In this regard, South Korea’s actualization of the problem of “comfort women”, as well as “forcedly recruited” Koreans to work for Japanese companies during the Second World War, was no exception. Both of these problems (which were also discussed many times in the Independent External Evaluation report) became one of the main reasons for the sharp deterioration in bilateral relations.
In this regard, it seems appropriate to recall that the then President of Korea Park Geun-hye, sitting in the above photo on the right side of B. Obama, was sentenced to 25 years in prison a few years later precisely because at the end of 2015 she tried to resolve the first of these problems.
It should also be noted that recently the second of the “historical” issues, also seemingly resolved by the current President of Korea, suddenly reasserted itself, probably to the dismay of all participants in the process. We are talking about the ruling issued by the South Korean Supreme Court at the end of December 2023, which rejected Nippon Steel’s claim asking the court to exempt it from paying compensation to the current South Korean heirs of the former “requisitioned workers.” By the way, the same “mercantile” component was at the heart of the problem regarding “comfort women”.
Moreover, there still remains a territorial issue shaped by disputes over the ownership of a group of small uninhabited islands located almost equidistant from the nearest points on the coasts of Japan and South Korea. In fact, they are controlled by the police department of South Korea (where they are called Dokdo), but they are also claimed by Japan (where these islands are called Takeshima). However, both sides still prefer to overlook this issue.
Nevertheless, Washington is very pleased with the emerging positive trends in relations between its closest Asian allies. The United States hopes that the long-awaited triple alliance mentioned at the beginning in the form of a ripe fruit will now fall into its hands. And, indeed, comments dedicated to the first meeting of the leaders of the three countries, held in August 2023 at Camp David, contained the words “historic moment” and “turning point.” They concerned both the state and prospects for the development of relations in this trilateral format, and the impact of this event on the situation in the Indo-Pacific region as a whole.
This is evidenced by the resolution of some other problems in Japanese-South Korean relations (including the sphere of defense), the increased frequency of joint military exercises in a trilateral format, and various kinds of (joint) public harsh statements against the DPRK. Various harsh statements are made, for example, in connection with the “supply of artillery shells to Russia, which is waging an aggressive war against Ukraine.”
And the faces of all participants at various events within the said “Trio” now radiate the same optimism in the photo. For example, in the photo that was taken on the occasion of a meeting of national security advisers in Seoul in early December 2023. Or in the photo of representatives of the Foreign Ministries of the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea, taken on January 5 in Washington on the occasion of the event mentioned at the beginning.
The outcome of this event was a brief Joint Statement, which can be found here. As one might expect, it pays special attention to Taiwan issues in connection with the national elections scheduled for January 13. However, the situation developing in the adjacent waters of the South China Sea deserves no less attention.
Regarding both of these issues, meeting participants expressed they “concerns about China’s escalatory behavior.” The parties also opposed “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion anywhere in the waters of the Indo-Pacific.” In their opinion, this is especially true for the situation in the Taiwan Strait, where “maintaining peace and stability is necessary to ensure the security and prosperity in the international community.”
In general, this is Washington’s long-established rhetoric applied to particularly sensitive aspects of US-China relations. However, the very fact of declaring the existence of the tripartite structure discussed here has not yet brought any innovations.
Naturally, the question arises as to what it actually is. Regarding the situation in the Indo-Pacific region, this issue is not new. Previously, it arose with the emergence of such structures as AUKUS or QUAD in this region. Answering this question, we can say with a fair degree of confidence that these are not yet full-fledged military-political alliances with more or less formalized obligations of its participants (such as, for example, NATO).
And there is no evidence yet that any of them will take this form, at least in the near future. Mainly due to the rapidly changing world order, when taking on certain obligations is fraught with unpredictable consequences.
As for the US-Japan-ROK structure discussed here, we repeat that a number of obvious and hidden serious problems remain in the relations between the latter two. In addition, each member of the trio is engaged in their own intrigues in relations with the key opponent of this structure, which is China.
Moreover, it itself is not at all a passive observer of the maneuvers of its main geopolitical opponent, together with its allies. It is worth recalling the meeting of the foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea that took place at the end of November in Busan.
Thus, the high degree of uncertainty in the political situation emerging in the Indo-Pacific region in general, and in East Asia in particular, leaves no chance for any reasonable forecast evaluation of the prospects for the development of the tripartite structure discussed here.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on Asia-Pacific issues, exclusively for the internet journal “New Eastern Outlook”.