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Is It Time for the U.S.-Japan-South Korea Virtual Alliance to Get Real?

by Scott A. Snyder
January 17, 2012

South Korean nuclear envoy Lim Sung-nam and Japanese counterpart Shinsuke Sugiyama. (Courtesy Yonhap News) South Korean nuclear envoy Lim Sung-nam and Japanese counterpart Shinsuke Sugiyama. (Courtesy Yonhap News)

Today’s meeting among U.S., Japanese, and South Korean envoys to discuss policy coordination toward North Korea is a welcome step forward that builds on a foreign ministers’ meeting held in Washington on December 6, 2010, in response to the North Korean artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island.   That meeting resulted in an ambitious joint statement illustrating the depth of like-mindedness among the three countries.  The idea of strengthening the trilateral relationship has great potential but it has also been frustratingly slow to materialize in practice.

The previous high water mark for trilateral coordination occurred in the late 1990s with the establishment of the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG). Ralph Cossa coined the term “virtual alliance” to describe  a situation in which Japan and South Korea were able to work in concert with each other as quasi-allies through their respective alliances with the United States, even if they were reluctant to work directly with each other bilaterally as a result of territorial and historical disputes.

Developments since then have pushed South Korea and Japan closer together: common security and diplomatic challenges resulting from China’s rising influence,  conceptualization of their roles and influence in international relations as “middle powers,” converging cultural and social preferences of younger generations, and North Korean provocations highlighting the necessity of Japan-ROK security cooperation. However, building on this collaboration has been surprisingly difficult. There were reports from December 2010 that Japan and South Korea would sign agreements on intelligence sharing and cross-servicing, major steps that would essentially create a common platform for closer institutional cooperation among the three defense establishments.  The need for such cooperation emerged most clearly following North Korea’s missile launch in 2009, at which time Korean and Japanese equipped Aegis destroyers independently tracked North Korea’s multi-stage rocket, but were unable to share data with each other. These agreements have yet to materialize.

Following the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear tragedies that hit Japan on March 11th, there was a genuine outpouring of empathy in South Korea for Japan’s human tragedy.  But even in the aftermath of this tragedy, textbook and territorial issues surrounding Tokdo/Takeshima again emerged to turn Korean public opinion negative toward cooperation with Japan, serving to stall potential progress in institutionalizing Japan-ROK defense cooperation.

At this stage, two main issues dominate discussion: an unfavorable political environment in the Japan-ROK relationship and concerns about how China would respond to institutionalized trilateral security cooperation.

The intractability of the Japan-South Korea relationship remains a significant barrier to deepening security cooperation despite DPJ Prime Minister Noda’s conciliatory return of some ancient Korean texts to Seoul.  But it underscores the need to contain these sensitive issues while building stronger Japan-ROK cooperation where possible.  Leading South Korean strategists know in their head that it is the right thing to do, even though their hearts remain an obstacle to embracing cooperation with Japan.  On this front, nothing will be more important than for South Koreans to de-emotionalize its analysis of the stakes and benefits of stronger cooperation with Japan.

Thus far, the trilateral push for enhanced coordination has not been about China.  While it is important to explain clearly the motives behind stronger trilateral defense cooperation, it would be a mistake to give China a veto over such cooperation, especially in a fiscally constrained environment where cooperation might be the best way to meet respective defense needs and interests of the United States, Japan, and South Korea going forward.  With the establishment of a secretariat for China-Japan-ROK economic cooperation in Seoul earlier this year, Chinese complaints about stronger U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateralism should ring hollow.

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