Joint statements from both the visits emphasised the critical importance of the US–ROK–Japan alliance to the regional security order.
By Shashank Mattoo
March saw the curtains rise for the much-awaited debut act of President Biden’s East Asia policy. The main performers, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Llyod Austin, took to the stage in Seoul and Tokyo in what was the Biden Administration’s first Cabinet-level interaction with its allies. Faced with a range of tricky challenges, from Korea’s reluctance to confront China to the still-delicate relations between Seoul and Tokyo, the new Administration performed creditably.
The first stop on their trip was Tokyo. The US has pushed Japan to shoulder a greater share of the alliance’s defence costs. While both sides concluded a one-year continuation of the current cost-sharing arrangements, negotiations are currently underway that are expected to result in an increased Japanese contribution towards defence costs. Joint working groups dealing with emerging technologies, climate change and COVID-19 measures were created with an eye towards a planned summit between Prime Minister Suga and President Biden in April.
As was the case with Korea, the US reiterated its commitment to the U.S.-Japan Alliance that “remains the cornerstone of peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” Japanese diplomats were more than willing to place the China problem at the front and centre of the talks. Japan and the US put out stinging criticism of Chinese actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and Taiwan and termed China’s actions in the region “destabilising”—a phrase that evoked sharp reactions from Beijing. In response to China’s “coercion and aggression”, both sides roundly endorsed the Free and Open Indo-Pacific and a rules-based international order as key elements of a secure and stable regional order.
While the Tokyo leg of the Biden team’s visit to East Asia was an unvarnished success, there are signs of trouble in the region. In January this year, China authorised its coast guard force to fire on foreign vessels in its territorial waters. Given the long dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, this new action runs the risk of allowing smaller disputes to spiral into larger confrontations. In 2010, a Chinese fishing vessel captured by Japanese authorities became the centerpiece of a diplomatic conflict that saw China place an embargo on critical exports of rare earth metals to Japan. Trouble has already begun to brew as lawmakers from Japan’s Ishigaki Province have asked for permission to visit the islands. Should Tokyo refuse, the already embattled Suga administration may invite attacks for being insufficiently nationalistic. Should Tokyo agree, relations with China will undoubtedly suffer given past precedent and the sensitivity of the US-China relationship. During the 2+2 talks, Blinken and Austin made no bones about the United States’ willingness to defend the Senkaku islands. Tokyo may have reason to worry that the acrimony on display during the recently concluded US-China talks in Alaska may translate to a wider confrontation should the aforementioned lawmakers’ visit to the Sengaku Islands go through.
After their sojourn in Tokyo, Blinken and Austin touched down in Seoul with the wind in their sails. Just a few weeks earlier, the US and South Korea were able to conclude a new defence costs sharing agreement for the 28,500 troops the former maintains in Korea with Seoul agreeing to hike its payments by 13 percent. This agreement not only removed a long-standing irritant in the bilateral relationship but also spoke volumes about the new Administration’s approach to dealing with allies. While President Trump had forcefully demanded a highly unpopular fivefold increase in South Korea’s defence contributions, Biden’s team walked the talk on its earlier promise not to “extort” allies and is likely to win some goodwill for the same. During the 2+2 meetings earlier this week, both sides emphasised that the alliance “has never been more important” with the Americans acknowledging their relationship with South Korea as the “linchpin of peace and prosperity” in the region. Both sides affirmed their commitment to combating North Korea’s aggressive nuclear and ballistic missile program and the US announced its intention to conduct a comprehensive review of its policy towards the reclusive nation in consultation with South Korea. As is customary, both sides committed to defending ASEAN centrality and closer cooperation on a range of issues like climate change, nuclear energy, space and cybersecurity.
While the meeting hit the right PR notes, there were a fair share of curiosities that one finds when reading in between the lines. Conspicuous by its absence was any reference to China in the joint statement released by both sides. While Secretary Blinken was openly critical of China’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the South Koreans maintained a steady silence on the same. To Washington, this is a clear signal that Seoul, unlike Tokyo, does not intend to be caught in the crossfire of a tense Sino-US rivalry. Even more telling was Seoul’s hesitation to roundly endorse the Quad. While both sides agreed to safeguard a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, South Korea distinguished clearly between the Quad and President Moon Jae-In’s signature “New Southern Policy”. Seoul is well acquainted with the consequences of incurring Beijing’s displeasure and wishes to steer clear of the Quad’s perceived anti-China connotations.
The divergences between the US and Seoul don’t end there. The joint statement released after the talks also promised to continue the process of transferring operational control for the Combined Forces Command (CFC) from the US to South Korea. The CFC, which oversees both the RoK Army and the US Forces in Korea, entrusts wartime operational control to the United States and has an American commander; a fact that is increasingly unpalatable to many in Korea and especially younger generations. After years of delays, President Moon Jae-In has publicly expressed his intention to complete the handover of control by 2022, when his term ends. It is an ambition he is unlikely to realise. To begin with, many analysts and even former RoK generals have asked pointed questions about the RoK army’s ability to handle wartime operations. South Korea’s army remains dependent on the United States for a range of critical infrastructure and munitions, particularly in the domain of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. While the Moon Administration has ramped up defence spending and coordinated closely with the United States to address deficiencies, an RoK Army capable of maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula is likely to remain in the making for the foreseeable future.
In 2019, Seoul successfully completed the Initial Operational Capability test, the first of a series of three exercises that must be executed before operational control can be handed over. However, the next series of exercises will be even more demanding and will undoubtedly involve heated debates over budget constraints, the future of the UN Command in Korea and many other controversial issues that are bound to test the alliance sorely. The COVID-19 pandemic and the desire to placate North Korea after the 2018 Trump-Kim Summit have also led the US and RoK to scale back large military exercises, which makes it even more difficult to judge whether Seoul is ready to take over the controls. Korea’s conservative Liberty Korea Party has also made its opposition to the transfer of operation control known, which only adds to the uncertainty given upcoming elections in the country. Should President Moon try to push the transfer of control through before his term ends, he may only succeed in straining ties with his country’s most important ally. While Blinken and Austin got off to a good start in Seoul, they will have their task cut out for them in the years ahead.
Blinken and Austin also walked away with a win by extracting a promise from both Japan and South Korea to play nice. Joint statements from both the visits emphasised the critical importance of the US-RoK-Japan alliance to the regional security order. While this signals that the Biden Administration is serious about helping its feuding allies bury the hatchet, it is no guarantee that tensions will reduce. Earlier in March, President Moon Jae-In walked back months of speeches calling for Japan to apologise for its actions during its 20th-century colonisation of Korea and indicated his willingness to dial down tensions. With only one year left in his term, President Moon’s about-face on historical issues is both a play for legacy and a rare opportunity to pick up the pieces of the bilateral relationship. Thus far, his overtures have gone unanswered by Tokyo as Prime Minister Suga has shown no interest in compromising on Japan’s position. Matters are unlikely to be helped by Japan’s continued opposition to South Korea’s presence at the upcoming G7 Summit in London. Given that President Moon’s overtures represent the first serious attempt to reduce tensions since the two East Asian powers began their conflict in 2018, the Biden Administration now has a rare window of opportunity to push its allies towards peace and secure the future of a US-led security architecture in East Asia.
As the curtains fell on the Biden Administration’s debut performance in East Asia, there was much for the critics to applaud. One can only hope that the second act will not disappoint.
The author is Research Intern at ORF.