A New Geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific: The US-South Korea-Japan Trilateral Alliance

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As the United States-China rivalry intensifies in international relations that have transformed into a multipolar framework, developments in the Indo-Pacific region have been accelerating. Especially in the last period, US President Joe Biden’s meeting of ASEAN leaders at the White House and his visits to Japan and South Korea, the security agreement signed by China with the Solomon Islands and the 10-day visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the Pacific Islands Countries were seen as prominent developments in the Indo-Pacific agenda. However, there was another progress that attracted less attention in the region.

On June, 8, Republic of Korea (ROK) First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Hyundong, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and Japan Vice Foreign Minister Mori Takeo met in Seoul to discuss how our three countries will work together to address the challenges of the 21st Century for the benefit of the region and the world.[1] In a joint statement after the meeting, the three countries stated that they discussed the latest events in the region within the framework of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. The meeting, which was held at the level of the deputy minister, should be seen as significant in terms of its future effects, although it seems to be in the background due to the heavy agenda.

Despite being members of the Atlantic alliance, South Korea and Japan, which are considered one of the major powers in the region, have a troubled past. The most significant historical issue between South Korea and Japan still exists today as a result of Japan’s invasion of Korea in 1910 and various human rights violations that occurred up to 1945. Another issue creating conflict between Japan and South Korea is the disagreement over the sovereignty of the Dokdo or Takeshima Island.

While the tensions between South Korea and Japan have been increasing and decreasing over time, the geopolitical effects of this situation are reflected in the region. Due to issues between them, USA allies Japan and South Korea are often unable to contribute to Washington’s containment strategy against China at the desired level. This problem gives Beijing an advantage in the East China Sea, an important extension of the Indo-Pacific region. Beijing, which pursues a policy of increasing its presence in the South China Sea, especially through artificial islands, does not receive serious criticism from Japan and South Korea. This is a result of sovereignty disputes. Because the three nations which have the same problem have been utilizing this crisis as a blackmail tool against one another.

For the USA, which seeks to reduce and encircle China’s growing influence within the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” policy that it launched in recent years, the South Korea-Japan issue stands out as a drawback. The recent actions done by the USA to improve ties between the two nations are noteworthy, despite the fact that it does not appear to be a simple task to resolve the rivalry which has a long history. Joe Biden, who took office from Donald Trump, abandoned the “First America” narrative, opened more channels of dialogue with the countries of the region and took steps to deepen cooperation. In this sense, Biden saw Japan and South Korea as strategic allies.

The most recent Indo-Pacific report issued by the Biden Administration is the first of the recent initiatives created by the United States to pursue rapprochement between South Korea and Japan. Contrary to the previous reports, this document, which contains a separate sub-title for the strengthening of the US-South Korea-Japan alliance, aims to establish a reconciliation, particularly in light of North Korea’s threat of nuclear missile testing.[2]

As the DPRK continues to develop destabilizing nuclear and missile programs, we will continue to seek serious and sustained dialogue, with the goal of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula…At the same time, we are strengthening extended deterrence and coordination with the ROK and Japan to respond to DPRK provocations, remaining prepared to deter—and, if necessary, defeat—any aggression to the United States and our allies, while bolstering counter-proliferation efforts throughout the region. While reinforcing extended deterrence against nuclear- and ballistic-missile systems and other emerging threats to strategic stability, the United States will seek to work with a wide set of actors, including our rivals, to prevent and manage crises.”

In addition, the following statements are included in the sub-title of “Expand U.S.-Japan-ROK Cooperation”:[3]

Nearly every major Indo-Pacific challenge requires close cooperation among the United States’ allies and partners, particularly Japan and the ROK. We will continue to cooperate closely through trilateral channels on the DPRK. Beyond security, we will also work together on regional development and infrastructure, critical technology and supply-chain issues, and women’s leadership and empowerment. Increasingly, we will seek to coordinate our regional strategies in a trilateral context.”

The key driving forces behind the rapprochement process that the USA wants to initiate are to surround China more effectively in terms of economically and increase the involvement of South Korea much more toward the Indo-Pacific strategy. The USA, which desires to unite Japan and South Korea under a common threat (North Korea-China), also wants to see both countries on its side in the direction of the same goals. As a matter of fact, The Vice Foreign Ministers and the Deputy Secretary discussed the same targets such as a range of pressing regional and global issues, including our joint efforts to support Ukraine, restore Myanmar to a democratic path, bolster engagement with ASEAN and within ASEAN-led architecture, enhance cooperation with Pacific Island countries, strengthen economic and energy security, prioritize women’s empowerment and workforce development, uphold international law, and promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is inclusive and they took a decision that the next meeting will hold in Tokyo.[4]

This process was also among the key items of the agenda at the Shangri-La Dialogue Forum 2022 organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore. The following commitment by Lee Jong-Sup, Minister of National Defense, the Republic of Korea on relations with Japan demonstrates that US efforts have evolved from theory to reality:[5]

“We seek to strengthen ROK–US–Japan trilateral security cooperation to respond to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. While many bilateral issues remain unresolved between the ROK and Japan, we not only intend to have the two sides put their wisdom together to reach reasonable solutions in a way that is in line with the two countries’ shared interests, but also intend to engage in a serious dialogue with Japan, not just to normalise ROK–Japan security cooperation but also to strengthen ROK–US–Japan trilateral security cooperation.”

The meeting between Kishi Nobuo, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and S. Lee Jong-sup at the Shangri-La Dialogue Forum was another major step. The meeting in the first 3-way meeting since the inauguration of South Korea’s new government and the first such face-to-face meeting since November 2019, the parties took substantive decisions. In a joint statement, the defense chiefs strongly condemned North Korea’s repeated ballistic missile launches, saying they clearly violate UN Security Council resolutions. In addition to this statement, the decision to resume joint exercises, which have been suspended since December 2017, to deal with North Korea’s missile launches, came to the fore as the most tangible step taken. It is also noteworthy to emphasize the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Because it is the first time Taiwan has been mentioned in a joint statement of the 3-way defense ministerial meeting.[6]

When the efforts of the USA and the constructive attitude of Japan and South Korea are analyzed, it would not be wrong to say that a stronger objection to Beijing will arise in the East China Sea. The positive view of the Prime Ministers of South Korea and Japan towards the USA, the perception of China’s military modernization as a threat and the message that the USA is comeback by increasing its dialogue with its allies will herald new developments in the Indo-Pacific. The USA and its allies will gain considerable geographic and coordination advantage thanks to Japan and South Korea’s participation, which do not come together in the same formations to joint formations (such as South Korea’s membership in QUAD).

[1] “Joint Statement on the Republic of Korea-U.S.-Japan Trilateral Vice Foreign Ministerial Meeting”, The White House,, (Date of Accession: 16.06.2022).

[2] “Indo-Pacific Strategy of The United States”, The White House,, 2022. (Date of Accession: 16.06.2022).

[3] Aynı yer.

[4] “Joint Statement on the Republic of Korea-U.S.-Japan Trilateral Vice Foreign Ministerial Meeting”, a.g.e., (Date of Accession: 16.06.2022).

[5] “The IISS Shangri-La Dialogue”, IISS,, (Date of Accession: 16.06.2022).

[6] “Japan, US, S.Korea Agree to Resume Joint Military Drills to Counter N.Korea”, NHK World Japan,, (Date of Accession: 16.06.2022).

Mustafa Cem KOYUNCU
Mustafa Cem KOYUNCU
Mustafa Cem Koyuncu, Karabük Üniversitesinde Uluslararası İlişkiler bölümünde Master öğrencisi olup Hint-Pasifik Bölgesi, ABD-Çin Rekabeti, uluslararası güvenlik, jeopolitik ve stratejik araştırmalar alanları üzerinde çalışmalar yapmaktadır. Karabük Üniversitesi’nde eğitimine başlamadan önce, Boğaziçi Üniversitesinde Lisans eğitimini tamamlamıştır. Özel sektörde yöneticilik tecrübesi kazanmasının ardından Koyuncu, kariyerine ANKASAM’da devam etmektedir. Koyuncu, ileri seviyede İngilizce bilmektedir.