[News analysis] Watershed augmentation of US-Japan alliance to put Korea’s diplomacy to the test

Posted on : 2024-04-15 16:26 KST Modified on : 2024-04-15 16:36 KST
The summit between Biden and Kishida last week and the promises made there mark a fundamental shift in the political landscape of the region
President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. of the Philippines (left), US President Joe Biden (center), and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan stand for a photo ahead of their summit at the White House on April 11, 2024. (AP/Yonhap)
President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. of the Philippines (left), US President Joe Biden (center), and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan stand for a photo ahead of their summit at the White House on April 11, 2024. (AP/Yonhap)

Last week’s US-Japan summit, along with the two countries’ trilateral summit with the Philippines, marked a watershed moment in the East Asian order, as well as signaling a fundamental shift in the international political landscape surrounding the Korean Peninsula.
The US has declared Japan a global partner in upholding and bolstering free and open international order, and Japan has significantly increased its influence in the region by supplementing its military armament to assume the pivotal role of keeping China in check. This raises the question of which principles South Korea should follow and how it must respond to the changing situation.
There is a long history behind the US’ diplomatic shift. As US hegemony began to decline in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the failed war on terrorism, US strategists envisioned a strategy of reducing involvement in other regions, including the Middle East, to focus on countering China and letting allies take on more roles and costs.
This shift, which began with the Barack Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” policy and saw through the “Spirit of Camp David” joint statement by the leaders of the US, South Korea and Japan last year, culminated in the summit between the US and Japanese leaders last week, as the two countries declared they would integrate their security as “global partners,” completing the framework for America’s containment of China. Kurt Campbell, the US deputy secretary of state, has designed and directed this strategy since the Obama administration.
While relations in East Asia have mostly been centered around America’s bilateral alliances with various Asian countries, such as the US-South Korea alliance, the US-Japan alliance, and the US-Philippines alliance, relations are now shifting to form a lattice net that expands and brings multilateral alliances centered on the US and Japan tightly together to contain China.
South Korea will increasingly be asked or invited by the United States to join the following nets: AUKUS (the trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK and the US), the Quad (the strategic security dialogue between the US, Japan, Australia and India), and trilateral US-Japan-Philippines cooperation. There are also growing calls for South Korea to take on military responsibilities in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, which is adjacent to Taiwan.
The most immediate issue concerns South Korea’s participation in AUKUS. As a military cooperation program, AUKUS is divided into two pillars: Pillar 1 provides Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, and Pillar 2 involves the joint development of advanced military capabilities in eight fields, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cybersecurity, undersea technology and hypersonic missiles.
Once Biden formalized Japan’s participation in AUKUS, US National Security Council officials followed up that they are considering South Korea, Canada and New Zealand as additional partners. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry immediately expressed its enthusiasm.
“Our government is open to cooperating with AUKUS in several strategic areas, including advanced technology, and we have been in close communication," spokesperson Lim Soo-suk said last week.

What principles and strategies the Yoon administration will bring to the table is key. Japan’s departure from its pacifist constitution and its move toward rearmament and strengthening of military might is designed to secure very specific military and economic benefits from the US, such as in the technology field, in exchange for playing a central role in Asia as a counterweight to China.
If South Korea fails to conjure up adequate strategies and negotiate tactfully, it may find itself in a situation where it reaps no benefits while seeing its relationship with China further deteriorate. This is because the Yoon administration has, despite being assured that they are part of a “values-based diplomacy” with the US and Japan, so far failed to secure concrete strategic and economic benefits from either of those countries.
This stands in stark contrast with Australia during the US’ strategic shift. Australia has joined AUKUS and secured nuclear submarines from the US while Japan has gained important benefits from the US in future core industries such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence, quantum physics, nuclear fusion, and space, as well as joint development of weapons.
South Korea is currently sending its F-35 fighter jets to the US military base in Japan for maintenance, showcasing how South Korea’s access to US advanced technology is limited compared to Japan.
If this type of diplomacy continues, South Korea could find itself stuck as a subordinate ally of the US-Japan alliance, exacerbating its conflict with China, and put at a significant disadvantage to Japan in future core industries.
As one former senior diplomatic official put it, “The dramatic change in the global landscape is preventing South Korea from changing or leaving the new alliance structure in Asia, which is centered on the US-Japan alliance. Amid this change, South Korea needs to create a space to address its agenda with clear goals and strategies.”
They added, “South Korea can join the new structure while also sticking to its principles and fully understanding its current situation, but it must also come up with a comprehensive diplomatic strategy that allows Seoul to manage its relations with China and Russia to achieve denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and peaceful reunification of the two Koreas.”
South Korea should no longer remain silent as Japan blatantly ignores its historical wrongs and moves forward on a path of rearmament with active help from the US. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Thursday failed to mention Japan’s past wars of aggression and colonization, let alone express remorse for them.
The fact that South Korea has stopped demanding that Japan reflect on its history ever since Yoon took office in May 2022 also seems related to such behavior.
On Saturday, a Foreign Ministry official commented on the US and Japan’s decision to upgrade their military alliance during the US-Japan summit by saying, “We note that the US-Japan alliance is defensive in nature and emphasizes that the will to strengthen peace and stability in the region.” Nothing about Japan’s lack of reflection on past atrocities was mentioned.
As the Yoon administration has stopped urging Japan to properly repent for its past historical wrongs, South Korea has seen its influence in Japanese diplomacy shrink. To commemorate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Japan in 2025, the South Korean government has proposed a new Japan-South Korea joint declaration, but the Japanese government doesn’t seem very interested.
There is a growing realization within the Japanese government that there is no need to spend much diplomatic energy on South Korea now that the Yoon administration has abandoned its demands for proper historical reflection. South Korea is also running out of diplomatic cards to play.

By Park Min-hee, senior staff writer

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