Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Can Trilateral Cooperation Open a New Era for Japan, the U.S. and the Republic of Korea?
CHINO Keiko / Journalist

September 12, 2023
There has been a rapid progress in the trilateral cooperation between Japan, the U.S. and the Republic of Korea. It is not known yet whether the first trilateral summit meeting last August in Camp David near Washington, D.C. really heralded a historic beginning of the new era for Japan, the U.S. and the Republic of Korea. However, the summit was epoch-making at least in the following two senses.

Firstly, President Joe Biden invited the leaders of Japan and the Republic of Korea, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Yoon Suk Yeol, to his country residence where a number of historic meetings had taken place.

Secondly, this meeting, held for the first time as a stand-alone summit not in conjunction with any international meeting, became the first of the regular summit meetings to be held annually.

This shows how the tension has increased in the security environment in the Indo-Pacific, especially in East Asia. Or, to put it bluntly, the summit came about thanks to the confrontation between the U.S. and China. It is a case of the proverbial “fear strengthening alliance.”

Japan and the Republic of Korea have not had an alliance relationship. They have only been linked through their respective alliances with the United States. But there is no doubt that their trilateral ties will be strengthened both in name and substance.

We cannot disregard two other factors that have contributed to this development. One is President Biden’s strong will and his active approach to Japan and the Republic of Korea, and another is the remarkable improvement in Japan-ROK relationship since President Yoon came into power. Lacking either of these two factors, the progress in the Japan-U.S.-ROK cooperation would not have been possible.

It was President Biden’s determination to make this summit “historical” that prompted him to choose his country residence Camp David, which had not been in use for some time. In recent years, the public focus has been on Mar-a-Lago, President Trump’s Florida residence, and Camp David has really become history.

When President Carter mediated the Camp David Accords (a framework leading to the peace treaty concluded between Israel and Egypt) in 1978, the leaders concerned shut themselves up in the cottages for days until they managed to reach the historical accords.

In comparison, this Japan-U.S.-R.O.K. summit took only one day, which could possibly be dismissed as nothing more than a ceremony. But the ceremony itself was important, because Japan, the United States and the Republic of Korea sent out clear messages addressed to China and North Korea.

Since its inauguration, the Biden administration has prioritized multilateral cooperation in its foreign policy. Given that East Asia lacks an organization like NATO in Europe, there is no choice but for Japan and the Republic of Korea to act as the axis. Such a strategic thinking apparently motivated the then Vice President Biden to push eagerly for the agreement between Japan and the Republic of Korea on the issue of the comfort women.

That being said, the United States may have found the Japan-R.O.K. relationship intractable beyond words. The Park Geun Hye administration at the time overrode the domestic opposition to the comfort women agreement, and the foreign ministers of Japan and the R.O.K. confirmed at their joint press conference that “this issue is resolved finally and irreversibly with this announcement”. Then the Moon Jae In administration came in and reversed the course by effectively reneging on the agreement, and the Japan-R.O.K. relationship plunged to what was described as the rock bottom.

No matter how hard the United States might try, there is a limit to how far the tripartite cooperation between Japan, the U.S. and the R.O.K. can go without improvement in the Japan-R.O.K. relationship. China and North Korea are always on the look-out for a chance to drive a wedge between Japan and the Republic of Korea. For example, concerning the R.O.K.’s response to the issue of “treated water” from the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant of TEPCO, how would the Moon Jae In administration have acted if they had still been in power? China and North Korea might well have joined forces to grab the opportunity to launch a campaign of “Japan Bashing” with strident calls of “nuclear-contaminated water”.

In that sense, it is no exaggeration at all to say that the appearance of President Yoon Suk Yeol on stage is of immeasurable significance. Let me cite one symbolic example of how our bilateral relationship has improved. It was the joint laying of the wreath by Prime Mister Kishida and his wife and President Yoon and his wife at the Memorial Cenotaph of Korean Atomic Bomb Victims on the occasion of the G7 Hiroshima Summit.

I felt that the event was quietly appealing and left in our mind something to ponder, though its media coverage was more restrained and low-key than the G7 Leaders’ visit and laying of the wreath at the Peace Memorial Park Cenotaph. I first came to know about the Korean Atomic Bomb victims in the early 1970s, through an A-bomb survivor (hibakusha) who was actively appealing to the Japanese and Korean government for understanding about the Korean hibakusha and medical and other support to them. At that time, the presence of these hibakusha and their activities were hardly known to either the Japanese or the Korean side. Apart from meager support from a handful of people, they found themselves isolated and unaided.

Now, more than 50 years since the era of deafening apathy, the day has come for the Korean President and his wife to visit the memorial honoring these Korean victims, accompanied by the Japanese Prime Minister and his wife, to offer their silent prayers. This scene would not have come about without improved Japan-R.O.K. relations and the bold decision by the two leaders. This can be the starting point that we should come back to if our two countries are faced with difficulties in the future.

I wrote at the outset that it is not known yet whether the first trilateral summit meeting really heralded a historic beginning of the new era for Japan, the U.S. and the Republic of Korea. This is because there are not a few uncertainties and causes for concern. Firstly, the United States. What would happen if the presidential election next year ends up in a transition from the Democratic to Republican administration, and if former President Trump should come back? Then the Republic of Korea. The domestic support for the Yoon administration that has taken steps after steps to improve the relationship with Japan is woefully low. With a minority in the National Assembly, the government seems to be engaged in a lone, arduous battle. There is no guarantee that the next President will pursue the course of the current administration.

However, it would not be very constructive to dwell too much on the uncertainties and causes for concern. What Japan, the United States, and the Republic of Korea should do respectively is clear. They should each implement sincerely and steadily the three documents announced as a result of the trilateral summit, namely, (1) Camp David Principles, (2) The Spirit of Camp David: Joint Statement of Japan, the United States and the Republic of Korea, and (3) Commitment to Consult Among Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States.

Document (1) sets out the principles for advancing the trilateral partnership, including a free and open Indo-Pacific. Based on these principles, we should translate into action the steps for cooperation in all areas, including the holding at least annually of meetings at the level of the leaders, foreign and defense ministers and national security advisors. Both (1) and (2) endorse the centrality and unity of ASEAN, and look out to the Pacific islands, aiming to work closely with them. It is also important to translate these into reality.

These are also designed to ensure that there will be no turning back if there are changes of administration in Japan, the United States or the Republic of Korea. It can be called the institutionalization of regular consultations. This may in fact be the greatest outcome of the trilateral summit.

The trilateral cooperation between Japan, the United States and the Republic of Korea has the potential to become a framework of cooperation indispensable to the Indo-Pacific, together with the Quad (Japan, U.S., Australia and India) and AUKUS (U.S., U.K. and Australia).

CHINO Keiko is a freelance journalist and a guest editorial writer for Sankei Shimbun.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

千野 境子 / ジャーナリスト

2023年 9月 12日














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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Can Trilateral Cooperation Open a New Era for Japan, the U.S. and the Republic of Korea?