Then-Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken poses for a photo with Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama and Republic of Korea (ROK) First Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam before the fifth round of Deputy-level trilateral consultations in Tokyo, Japan, on October 27, 2016. [State Department photo]
Reinvesting in US-Japan-South Korea strategic relations

As foreign policy experts in the United States, Japan, and South Korea, the three of us recently participated in the U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea Trilateral Alliance Working Group, organized by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. Ten “next generation” scholars and practitioners from the United States, Japan, and South Korea were selected, representing academia, think tanks, and government, culminating in a report published today today entitled, “Reinvesting in U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea Strategic Relations: A Practical Trilateral Agenda.” 

The NCAFP report lays out a vision for trilateral partnership that advances common interests rather than pursuing trilateralism as an objective in and of itself. The report offers ways to adopt a “whole-of-government” approach to alliance management by broadening areas of cooperation to nontraditional security threats such as pandemics and climate change. It also explores new areas of cooperation such as humanitarian assistance for North Korea that could provide critical need during this period of COVID-19 pandemic.

The three of us served in a subgroup focused on identifying domestic constraints that have historically prevented closer cooperation between the three countries and recommendations for how to overcome them.

First, we recognized that COVID-19 pandemic recovery will be top priority for Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul, but especially for Washington given the high COVID-19 infection rate in the United States.

On foreign policy, President Biden has pledged to renew alliances to address regional challenges, which is welcome and needed. But this will not be easy, even without COVID recovery taking most of this bandwidth for the time being.

The biggest constraint that the Biden administration will face is the growing tendency among hawks in Washington who exaggerate China’s threat, which could reduce the room to tackle urgent challenges such as climate crisis and global pandemics. The United States must resist  calls to frame U.S.-Japan-ROK strategic cooperation as part of a China containment strategy, and instead pursue a strategy based on cooperation, humility, and pragmatism.

In Japan, the biggest domestic constraint in forging more productive trilateral relations is the low public opinion toward South Korea. There is broad consensus among foreign policy and national security experts in Japan that trilateral cooperation would be mutually beneficial. Unfortunately, disagreement over historical issues has generated negative feelings about South Korea within the Japanese public, reaching a 41-year low.

The recent ruling by Seoul Central District Court concerning a group of former “comfort women” will likely exacerbate this negative trend within the Japanese public. Adding to this legal decision is the domestic political environment; the conservative Liberal Democratic Party is vying to maintain power in the upcoming elections. So it seems unlikely for Tokyo to proactively jumpstart bilateral relations with South Korea, thereby limiting the prospect for dramatic transformation in trilateral relations. 

Similarly, the biggest barrier toward improving trilateral cooperation on the part of South Korea is in building positive relations with Japan, which colonized South Korea from 1910 to 1945. Bipartisan public hostility toward Japan stems from unresolved historical issues such as comfort women and forced labor to more recent events, such as Japan’s export restrictions against South Korea in 2019. Meanwhile, the Moon Jae-in administration has signaled interest in trilateral coordination to advance the peace process on the Korean Peninsula and respond to North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats. 

So how do we move forward? One way is to resuscitate ideas from the 2017 trilateral vice foreign ministerial meeting between then-Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan Shinsuke Sugiyama, and First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of South Korea Lim Sung-nam, such as trilateral cooperation on women’s empowerment, space policy, and humanitarian assistance. 

The business community and environmental groups could also collaborate more closely, identifying low-hanging fruit that advances domestic priorities and reinforces shared values of the three countries. 

Civil society, including cultural organizations, among the three democracies should also play a bigger role in building goodwill and trust over the long-term. Such efforts will likely improve public opinion more so than government-to-government cooperation given their visibility. 

Finally, more track-II efforts such as the NCAFP Trilateral Alliance Working Group are needed to build connective tissues between current and future policymakers in our countries.

As next generational leaders, we look forward to being part of future efforts that strengthen cooperation between our three countries. At a time when transnational threats show how small the world can be, the time is now for policymakers on both sides of the Pacific to challenge old assumptions and reimagine what is possible.