Staring down the barrel of an East Asian NATO: Korea, US, Japan to “engage” in event of security crisis

Posted on : 2023-08-18 16:44 KST Modified on : 2023-08-18 16:44 KST
Some of the pledges that appear slated to be announced at the trilateral summit bear a striking resemblance to those in the NATO charter
US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol head into a trilateral summit in Hiroshima on May 21 on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in the Japanese city. (Yonhap)
US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol head into a trilateral summit in Hiroshima on May 21 on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in the Japanese city. (Yonhap)

Briefings by senior South Korean and US officials on Wednesday and Thursday provided a clear outline of the agreements that will be reached at the US-South Korea-Japan trilateral summit on Friday, held at Camp David.

The summit is expected to mark what US President Joe Biden has described as a “fundamental change” to the security order of East Asia that has been in place for over seven decades since the end of World War II.

The agreements could pave the way for the creation of a collective security body, such as an East Asian version of NATO.

The three countries will use the summit to declare their intention to strengthen cooperation in a wide range of areas, including not only the military, but also economic security, climate change, humanitarian assistance, and advanced technology.

One of the documents to be adopted there, the “Camp David Principles,” will also attempt to “institutionalize” cooperation so that the commitments made at the meeting cannot be reversed down the line.

Among other agreements, the most prominent will regard strengthening security cooperation.

The three countries will regularize meetings between key officials dealing with national security, including the heads of state, foreign ministers, defense ministers, and national security advisors, and establish a hotline between them.

Through this multi-layered communication framework and hotline, the three countries aim to “communicate and engage” with each other during crisis situations. Joint exercises involving the three countries will take place on an annual basis.

The UK’s Financial Times called the decisions being made at the Camp David summit a “landmark trilateral agreement.”

The South Korean presidential office has emphasized that the agreement between the three countries will not create an alliance between South Korea and Japan.

“An alliance is a relationship in which the other side steps in when one country is attacked, and South Korea and Japan do not have that sort of relationship,” a senior presidential office official said.

However, the agreement will allow the three countries to “systematically share necessary information on specific targets and cooperate when the three countries agree on issues that directly affect their security interests,” the official said, adding that “we could call it a trilateral security cooperation system.”

The most controversial part of the statement the three countries are expected to release on Friday is that each country will “make commitments to dialogue and engage in critical circumstances.”

This is reminiscent of Article 4 of the NATO Charter, which states that countries “will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”

NATO immediately follows this with a collective security clause (Article 5) that states that an attack on any one country will be treated as an attack on the whole and responded to jointly.

In this sense, the agreement can be interpreted as the first concrete move toward the future creation of an East Asian version of NATO.

Unlike Europe, East Asia was unable to institutionalize a NATO-like collective security system due to historical conflicts between the two countries meant to be the “pillars” of cooperation — South Korea and Japan — and the constraints placed on Japan by its pacifist postwar constitution.

South Korea attempted to create a NATO-like collective security organization, the Asia Pacific Treaty Organization (APATO), in January 1968 after experiencing major security crises such as the assault on the presidential palace by Kim Shin-jo and North Korea’s capture of the USS Pueblo, but was unsuccessful.

The US, facing a domestic anti-war movement over the Vietnam War, and Japan, constrained by Article 9 of its constitution, did not cooperate. With US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, the United States embarked on a policy of engagement with China, and the idea of an Asian version of NATO naturally fizzled out.

This began to change in the mid-2010s, when the rise of China became more prominent.

Little by little, the US dismantled the two constraints that had prevented the creation of an Asian version of NATO: the historical conflict between Korea and Japan and Japan’s pacifist constitution.

The US has applied diplomatic pressure on South Korea to reconcile with Japan and has supported Japan’s rearmament. The US enthusiastically welcomed Japan’s declaration last December that it would acquire “enemy base counterstrike capabilities,” meaning the ability to launch preventive preemptive strikes against North Korea and China.

The same was true when President Yoon Suk-yeol made a unilateral concession this March on a ruling on compensation for victims of forced mobilization, the last obstacle to South Korea-Japan cooperation.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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