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US, Japan, S Korea Security Alliance Bears Hallmarks of an Asian NATO

Abhyuday Saraswat

19 September 2023

The Camp David bore witness to the birth of yet another historic diplomatic masterstroke in August 2023. Capitalizing on the recent rapprochement between Japan and South Korea, Washington has skillfully crafted a trilateral security cooperation framework to counter China. How could this shape the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific?

US, Japan, S Korea Security Alliance Bears Hallmarks of an Asian NATO

On 18 August 2023, US President Joe Biden received Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at Camp David, a presidential retreat in the state of Maryland. The three leaders pledged to strengthen military and commercial relations while condemning China's "dangerous and aggressive behaviour." While Japan and South Korea are formal treaty allies of the USA, the summit marked a significant milestone in reconfiguring their mutual relations into a trilateral setup. Amid growing US-China tensions, the trilateral summit has signalled the three countries’ willingness to work together to counter common threats.

The statements regarding trilateral defence cooperation were a noteworthy outcome of the Camp David summit. Plans to strengthen cooperation on ballistic missile defence are especially significant, notwithstanding Beijing's heavy pressure on Seoul to desist from joining an integrated missile defence architecture with the US and Japan. A long-term military exercise program involving an annual event in many domains might help strengthen their defence ties over time. The summit has sparked interest among Indo-Pacific observers around the world, who suspect whether the separate bilateral treaty alliances have now transformed into an trilateral Asian NATO. This article addresses the major outcomes of the summit and its larger regional implications.

US-Japan-South Korea Trilateral: An Asian NATO?

The three nations were eager to deny that their agreement amounts to a formal trilateral defence alliance or any other binding commitment. Nonetheless, the wording of the Camp David joint statement mentions the means to respond to common security threat. Such language is usually reserved for allies. Moreover, they lay the groundwork for long-term cooperation in the defence and security sphere.

The USA already engages annually in bilateral military exercises with South Korea for maintaining their joint readiness to face threats from North Korea. Meanwhile, as per the terms of the Mutual Security Treaty, 1951, the USA has already put in place plans for safeguarding Japan’s security and assisting in contingency operations elsewhere in the area. The USA and Japan have been enhancing preparedness through frequently engaging in military drills. However, a trilateral security framework for contingency planning has so far been non-existent despite significant strategic convergences across the region.

Under the new trilateral framework, the USA would sign a formal "commitment to consult," which states that the three countries will take any security threat to one of them as a threat to all, necessitating mutual dialogue about how to respond. The vow would not go as far as Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which requires the allies to "take action" if any member is attacked. However, it would strengthen the idea that the three would respond in concert.

The "duty to consult" pledge implies that the three countries have "fundamentally interlinked security environments" and that a danger to one of them is "a threat to all." In the event of a danger or crisis, the three nations undertake to confer, share information, and match their responses with one another. The promise does not violate each country's right to self-defence under international law. Nor does it modify existing bilateral treaty commitments between the United States and Japan or the United States and South Korea. The US has more than 80,000 troops stationed in both nations.

South Korea-Japan Rapprochement the Key

A trend of prevailing mistrust between Japan and South Korea had so far prevented the realization of a trilateral defence cooperation framework. The mistrust stems from disputes that date back to when Japan occupied South Korea during 1910-1945. A sticking thorn among them is the issue of the Japanese military’s employment of Korean comfort women during World War II. South Koreans view this as a grave injustice and had been demanding reparations from Japan.

Since Yoon’s ascension to presidency, the Republic of Korea and Japan have resumed military intelligence collaboration under the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). Commercial relations have also been reestablished. The old colonial animosity that has hindered the political leadership from seeking closer connections may have faded. However, feelings among the public remains strong.

Protestors in Seoul have expressed their dissatisfaction with Yoon's leadership for accepting the comfort women settlement offered by Japan. The Yoon government is known for its staunchly conservative policies, particularly toward North Korea, but the abrupt détente with Japan has cast doubts. Despite the backlash, it seems likely that larger geopolitical concerns emanating from the neighbourhood – particularly from China and North Korea – has been at the forefront of the Yoon administration’s recalibration of ties with Japan. In this respect, the Camp David summit represents a new era of consensus and collaboration for the USA, Japan and South Korea.

We Stand Together

The three leaders stressed on the need to join hands in a world spiralling into geopolitical chaos and sought to project a united front against China’s growing aggression. President Biden appreciated the leaders of South Korea and Japan for showing political fortitude in pursuing bilateral reconciliation. He stated that they recognized the globe was "at an inflection point, where we're called to lead in new ways, work together, and stand together."

"Critically, we've all committed to quickly consulting with each other in response to threats to any of our countries, regardless of source," he added. "That means we'll have a hotline to share information and coordinate our responses whenever a crisis occurs in the region or affects any of our countries. Together, we're going to stand up for international law" as well as against "coercion", Biden stated.

In a similar tone, PM Kishida condemned "unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force in the East and South China Seas". He further pointed out that the missile and nuclear threat from North Korea was "only becoming ever larger." Meanwhile, President Yoon interpreted the summit agreement to be synonymous with a collective defence stipulation. He stated that "provocations or attacks against any one of our three countries will trigger a decision-making process within the trilateral framework, and our solidarity will become even stronger and harder."

Provoked China Equals a Confrontational China

While South Korea, Japan, and the US seek to avoid offending Beijing, China feels the US is attempting to isolate it politically and militarily. The US wishes to capitalise on the recent Japan-South Korea rapprochement by institutionalizing regular cooperation across all domains. This would further make it difficult for subsequent political administrations in South Korea or Japan to backtrack on their security commitments. However, China views this as a blatant provocation. Beijing has repeatedly warned that the United States' efforts to deepen relations with South Korea and Japan may "increase tension and confrontation in the region."

China’s recent aggression against Philippine boats in the South China Sea may attest to its growing ire over the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral. Beijing's turn to forceful techniques may run counter to the vision of a free and open Indo Pacific. This cooperation comes at a time where China’s pressure over Taiwan is increasing and might prove detrimental for regional peace and stability. China's message to the USA and its allies is loud and clear, get in line or prepare to receive the Philippine treatment.

Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.

Abhyuday Saraswat


Abhyuday is the resident Defence and Security Fellow at Trivium. He is pursuing a postgraduate degree in Defence and Strategic Studies from Bareilly College, M.J.P. Rohilkhand University, Bareilly. His areas of interest include defence affairs, international relations and geopolitics.


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