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China-Japan-South Korea Relations Under Global Geopolitical Context
He Jun
2023-08-18
Region : North East Asia, China, Korean Peninsula, Japan, Economy,
Issue : Military Issues,
On August 18, U.S. President Joe Biden invites Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to hold a summit at the Camp David presidential retreat. Unlike formal political venues like the White House, the Camp David meeting is a form of estate diplomacy deeply rooted in American culture. Due to its somewhat informal “private” nature, it better demonstrates the sense of “closeness” that the U.S. wants to convey to Japan and South Korea. To some extent, this can be seen as a reward from the U.S. to Japan and South Korea for their high-level cooperation in geopolitics in recent years.
After World War II, Japan and South Korea became U.S. allies, and this alliance has lasted for 78 years to the present day. After adjusting its strategy towards China, the U.S. began to create various encirclement against China globally with its allies or partner countries. These include political, economic, technological, military, and educational aspects. There are traditional multilateral mechanisms (such as NATO, G7, EU), new multilateral frameworks (such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, trilateral dialogues like AUKUS, Quad, etc.), and various bilateral mechanisms (such as U.S.-Japan, U.S.-South Korea, U.S.-Philippines, etc.). After years of continuous efforts, combined with the stimulation provided by the situation in Ukraine, such a multi-faceted encirclement of China has gradually taken shape.
In recent years, there have been numerous bilateral or multilateral meetings between the U.S. Japan, South Korea, including trilateral meetings held within multilateral forums (such as the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit during the ASEAN summit on November 13, 2022, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia). However, a trilateral meeting like the upcoming one at Camp David, specifically for the three countries is extremely rare. One question arises: after 78 years of stable military alliances, what is the purpose of this trilateral summit? In which areas do they wish to make further progress? Researchers at ANBOUND believe that the most significant focus to observe during the Camp David summit is whether the three countries will establish a formal “trilateral military alliance”. If so, this could potentially serve as a prototype of an “Asian version of NATO”.
On August 14, Reuters cited unnamed senior U.S. government officials who stated that the leaders of the three countries will launch a series of joint initiatives in technology, education, and defense, particularly by initiating new defense measures. The officials mentioned that while this summit is unlikely to reach a formal security agreement and cannot make commitments for mutual defense among nations, the leaders of the countries will agree on regional responsibilities, and establish a “three-way hot line to communicate in times of crisis”. U.S. officials hope that the summit will mark the beginning of an annual meeting between the leaders of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, formally establishing relations and cooperation among the three nations, that will bring them “closer together in the security realm” and add to the “collective security”. It is worth noting that U.S. officials mentioned a future vision: “it’s too much to ask – it’s a bridge too far – to fully expect a three-way security framework among each of us. However, we are taking steps whereby each of the countries understand responsibilities with respect to regional security, and we are advancing new areas of coordination and ballistic missile defense, again technology, that will be perceived as very substantial”.
In the above statements, the officials do not conceal their long-term goal—establishing a formal U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral security framework. Once this framework is established, the three countries will have a military alliance framework aimed at a common hypothetical adversary. Under this framework, the cooperation among the three nations will go far beyond cooperation such as intelligence sharing. It will be constrained by a solidified trilateral security framework in various aspects, including joint military actions, daily military collaboration, emergency response, conditions triggering war, and more. For China, this is undoubtedly a major geopolitical change. Given the close geographical proximity of China, Japan, and South Korea, this gradually forming a military alliance is essentially a “mini-NATO” right under China’s nose.
There is no doubt that the enhanced security cooperation among the U.S., Japan, and South Korea is closely related to China. It can even be seen as a geopolitical mechanism tailored for China.
First of all, the U.S. has successfully portrayed China as a common “hypothetical adversary” for itself, as well as for Japan, and South Korea. Despite the domestic challenges faced by the aging President Biden, it must be acknowledged that he has been quite effective in pursuing diplomacy focused on containing China. For instance, the U.S. has successfully organized chip restrictions against China within the Western world; effectively influenced the European Union to postpone the review of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which is likely to be a permanent postponement; and established the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework within the Indo-Pacific Strategy Framework, which, regardless of its effectiveness, at least in form, excludes China. While Japan and South Korea have both had fluctuations in their relations with China in the past, it is rare for the leaders of both countries to take a tough stance towards China simultaneously.
By including Japanese Prime Minister Kishida and South Korean President Yoon, this is tantamount to a “dual tough” approach. Yoon’s unprecedented concessions on historical issues have broken the deadlock in Japan-South Korea relations, leading to a historic breakthrough in the relationship. According to field research conducted by some scholars, the prevailing attitude in Japanese society toward improving Japan-China relations is essentially “hopeless” and “unnecessary”. Regarding visits to China by important economic groups within the year, it has been expressed that the schedules of key Japanese economic leaders are already full, making a collective visit to China impractical and less necessary. Based on reports from the Japanese media, there seems to be very little room for cooperation between Japan and China beyond their confrontational stance.
Furthermore, if the U.S., Japan, and South Korea establish a stable trilateral security framework, it will have a significant impact on the Taiwan issue. In the geopolitical landscape of East Asia, both Japan and South Korea have tied themselves to the Taiwan issue. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued that “a Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance”. South Korea, which had been reluctant to take a prominent stance on the Taiwan issue in the past, has broken tradition and become more assertive. President Yoon directly stated that the “Taiwan issue is not a China issue, but a global issue”.
According to Reuters analysis, the summit is aimed to address the “greater regional threats posed both by China’s rise and North Korea”. It is reported that particularly concerning issues related to China, it is expected that a joint statement will be released during the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral leaders’ meeting, with contents involving the situation in the Taiwan Strait. A U.S. official disclosed that the trilateral joint statement will “include language on maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”. However, the specific content and wording related to this matter are expected to be finalized at the last moment of negotiations.
For China, the changes in these two neighboring countries, especially South Korea, were unimaginable in the past. Previously, during the era of globalization, economic logic prevailed; now, countries are guided by geopolitical logic. From the perspective of many politicians today, what economic logic pursues fails to contribute to national security and can be ditched.
From the current situation in East Asia, the strengthening of security cooperation between the U.S., Japan, and South Korea to address geopolitical frictions has further narrowed the space for peaceful communication among relevant countries. The series of bilateral or trilateral military exercises conducted by the three countries in the East Asian region, as well as the cooperative military drills between China and South Korea in the Sea of Japan and the Western Pacific, have escalated tensions in the region. Against the backdrop of the Ukraine war, China is facing the development where the U.S. and its allies aiming to shape China, Russia, and North Korea into a new geopolitical bloc. Russia has already become an open enemy of the Western world, North Korea is considered the “Axis of Evil” in the eyes of the U.S., and China is seen as the most challenging “long-term strategic competitor”. If China, Russia, and North Korea are lumped together by the West, it undoubtedly poses significant challenges to it.
In the face of this complex situation, from an independent think tank perspective, researchers at ANBOUND offer a few personal thoughts:
Firstly, the tense geopolitical situation in East Asia is still deteriorating. This is part of the global geopolitical pattern changes driven by the U.S., forming a subsystem within a larger global system. Given that this larger system remains unchanged, it is difficult to alter the subsystem. This implies that the key to changing the situation in East Asia is not solely in the hands of China, Japan, and South Korea. If U.S.-China relations do not improve, the East Asian situation is unlikely to change for the better. Moreover, in the current situation, the U.S. benefits from maintaining friction and tension between China and neighboring countries and regions, as this aligns with its strategy of encircling China.
Secondly, while China’s relations with Japan and South Korea are influenced by its relationship with the U.S., China should strive to differentiate and distinguish these relationships, treating the improvement of China-Japan and China-South Korea relations as independent goals, and seeking means for coexistence. With this in mind, China should fully utilize various channels and relationships for communication with Japan and South Korea, enhance bilateral or trilateral economic and trade dialogues, and work to maintain an open state conducive to dialogue. Additionally, China may need to moderately control the spread of extreme nationalism at the societal level. If left unchecked, such sentiments could form a so-called “public opinion” on unregulated online platforms, subsequently influencing national policies.
Thirdly, the deterioration of China-Japan and China-South Korea relations did not happen overnight, and improving these relations will also take time. Faced with the current situation, China needs to view its relations with Japan and South Korea from a global perspective, maintain openness while safeguarding its bottom line, leverage its advantages in economics and markets, and strive to maintain the stability of economic and trade relations. Many other aspects may need to be left to time to decide. We believe that Japan and South Korea’s political dynamics cannot remain as firm as they are now forever, and changes will also occur in China’s economic and social landscape. China needs to be prepared on a clear course and wait for the arrival of a new political cycle.
The shifts in the international landscape do not happen suddenly, and the evolving relations between Japan, South Korea, and China do not occur over a short period. Reflecting on the significant global changes of the last six to seven years, Japan and South Korea were not at the forefront of advocating for the decoupling of China from the rest of the world. Instead, they have deep geographical, economic, and trade ties with China. While they were aware of their eventual departure from China, the actual process has not been as swift as initially thought. When ANBOUND introduced the “1+3” global framework (Kung Chan, May 2018), it was essentially the final opportunity to deter them from pulling away. Presently, Japan, South Korea, and even Germany are faced with the reality that their economic and business sectors will ultimately have to detach from China, and the time for this pivotal moment has now begun.

Final analysis conclusion:
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The trilateral meeting of leaders from the United States, Japan, and South Korea at Camp David could become a significant juncture in the development of the East Asian geopolitical landscape. China needs to be vigilant about whether this might evolve into a permanent military alliance among these three nations. The situation in East Asia is likely to continue deteriorating, which is unfavorable for China. However, in this environment, China should remain open, uphold substantial economic and trade relationships, maintain communication as much as possible, and patiently await the arrival of a new political cycle.
He Jun is a researcher at ANBOUND
This article originally appeared in ANBOUND
The views expressed above belong to the author(s)

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