Friday, December 1, 2023 | 04:28 WIB

Proximity of the Trilateral Military Partnership: United States, Japan and South Korea


Jakarta, IO – Following the “Camp David Summit” involving the leaders of the United States, Japan, and South Korea, plans for increased joint military exercises have been announced. The leaders met in August at Camp David and expressed commitment to coordinating responses to regional challenges. This marks the start of enhanced trilateral cooperation among the three countries. 

Recent developments have seen improved relations between the US, Japan and South Korea, facilitated by the US administration’s emphasis on democratic values. Joint efforts have led to resumed diplomatic visits and the intent to strengthen the alliance through various means, even amid historical tensions. 

Efforts to fortify cooperation have manifested in frequent high-level summits and joint military exercises focused on defense, intelligence sharing, and technology. These actions aim to address regional security challenges, particularly concerning North Korea’s activities. However, this increased cooperation has also sparked concerns about regional stability and arms escalation. 

The trilateral alliance between the US, Japan and South Korea holds significance within the broader Asia-Pacific alliance system. Nonetheless, the historical baggage between Japan and South Korea remains a challenge. The recent efforts are geared towards countering North Korean threats, but they risk escalating tensions, arms races, and potential misjudgments. 

The efforts to strengthen defense ties have led to a surge in military investments in Japan and South Korea, arousing concern about regional instability. The strategies pursued by these countries could potentially undermine cooperative mechanisms and trigger an arms build-up across the region. North Korea has condemned these actions, pointing to the potential dangers of increased conflict. 

The United States is actively fostering closer relations between Japan and South Korea, with the primary aim of strengthening its “Indo-Pacific Strategy” and bolstering regional competitiveness. Over time, the traditional “hub-and-spoke system,” established by the U.S. through numerous bilateral alliances in the Asia-Pacific region has become inadequate to realize a broader “Indo-Pacific strategy” in the face of evolving global power dynamics and America’s diminishing overall national strength. 

This has prompted a shift toward integrating bilateral allies into various “small multilateral alliance systems,” ultimately leading to the creation of a “multilateral alliance system” akin to NATO. Such a system aims to effectively maintain U.S. regional dominance. Consequently, the U.S. has been increasingly active in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, forming alliances like the “quadrilateral mechanism” involving the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India, the “AUKUS” alliance with the U.S., Britain, and Australia, and even expanding the “Five Eyes Alliance” to include Canada and New Zealand. These initiatives, along with other “small multilateral alliances,” are orchestrated to maintain U.S. influence, under the guise of upholding security by deliberately cultivating tensions. 

Within this alliance framework, Japan and South Korea, hold significant value for the U.S., on account of their strategic positions, The U.S. capitalizes on their aspiration for a more prominent military role and seeks to reconcile differences to maximize their combined potential. This serves a dual purpose of leveraging their synergy in curbing North Korea and countering China and Russia, all while advancing U.S. interests and augmenting strategic containment against regional powers. 

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However, both Japan and South Korea harbor reservations about U.S. strategic intentions. They recognize that in establishing a tripartite alliance, the U.S. might push them into the forefront of potential conflicts, exposing them to heightened risks. Some Japanese analysts caution that in a conflict scenario, Japan could bear the brunt of the impact, potentially with the U.S. abstaining from direct involvement. South Korean media, too, express concerns about their government’s promotion of a quasi-alliance with Japan without adequately addressing public sentiment. They highlight how unresolved structural conflicts, such as territorial disputes and historical issues, could cast a shadow over bilateral relations over the long term. 

In the midst of these complexities, while defense cooperation among the U.S., Japan, and South Korea has deepened and yielded numerous achievements, the differences in their core strategic objectives, as well as divergent interests and constraints, imply an uncertain future outlook for their collaboration.

M. Raihan Ronodipuro is a Master’s Degree student in the School of Public Policy & Management at Tsinghua University, China. Previously, he was awarded the Chinese MOFCOM Scholarship and earned a Master of Law in International Relations from the School of International and Public Affairs at Jilin University in China. He serves as an Associate Researcher in the Department of Politics and Security at the Center for Indonesia-China Studies (CICS). He is presently a member of the International Relations Commission at the Directorate of Research and Studies for the Overseas Indonesian Students’ Association Alliance (OISAA) 2022/2023.


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