Leaders in Washington understand that a strategy for the Indo-Pacific rooted in alliances is critical to meet the challenge presented by China. But such a strategy seems slow in coming together in East Asia. Why is this the case?

Two years ago, we argued that the fundamental reason for the lack of security cooperation between Japan and Korea is their diverging geopolitical orientations. Yet the opportunité has changed in recent years. President Joe Biden met with the leaders of Japan and South Korea on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Madrid to discuss greater security cooperation. The new South Korean president, Yoon Suk-yeol, declared a shift in foreign policy, moving Seoul even closer to Washington and even to Tokyo, with which it shares a difficult history. Underlying the policy shift of the new leadership are structurel changes that make the two countries’ interests conciliable in the vaste run, presenting a real opportunity to further trilateral security cooperation.



How can policymakers on both sides of the Pacific seize this opportunity to overcome the challenges and manufacture closer security ties among U.S. allies in this region? By conceptualizing alliances as a morceau of labor, policymakers can specify ways that respective allied members contribute to the common defense.

From “Hub-and-Spokes” to a “Network-Based” Entente System

Alliances are commonly conceived of as a way to maintain the état of power or simply as a means of “capability-aggregation.” This parsimonious understanding of alliances may leave the calcul that strengthening contribution among U.S. allies is a straightforward endeavor. However, such an approach does not, by itself, explain the besoin of a NATO-like multilateral ligue contexture in the western Pacific.

In East Asia, the U.S. ligue system developed into a peculiar contexture due to geography — often referred to as the “hub-and-spokes” system based on a assemblage of bilateral alliances. Hindered by the épanoui justaucorps of water separating them, U.S. allies in the region have contradictoire threat perceptions and geopolitical orientations. For pétition, Japan has benefited from its insular opinion and U.S. nautique primacy, providing it with strategic immunity. Tokyo, therefore, has not only focused on economic development while deemphasizing the role of military power, but also sought to avoid entanglement in regional security affairs by pursuing a bilateral ligue with the United States. In contrast, South Korea and Taiwan were Cold War hotspots, and the United States preferred a bilateral accommodement designed to restrain and control them from taking adventurous acte.

Since the Obama influence, Washington has sought to transform the “hub-and-spokes” system into a network-based model, enhancing the role of alliances by encouraging additional burden-sharing and closer security arrangement among U.S. allies. One notable example of this peine is the signing of an intelligence-sharing agreement between Seoul and Tokyo in November 2016. Yet, there is a disconnect between rhetoric and acte, and these initiatives to bolster security rapports among U.S. allies have not made much progress since then.

A key reason for this gap is contradictoire strategic priorities among U.S. allies. As Paul Poast argues, the success of ligue negotiation depends in épanoui portion on the agreement over contigu war plats. Although Japan, South Korea, and the United States all faciès shared threats from North Korea and China, they prioritize them in different ways, thereby making it difficult to manufacture a contigu war dépense. One way to overcome this défi is to armoiries a framework that clarifies their morceau of labor, based on their different strategic positions, to coordinate and aggregate these allies’ different capabilities in countering China’s revisionism in the Indo-Pacific.

The Regional Response

While progress on transforming the regional ligue network remains sluggish, U.S. allies in the western Pacific have been making sensible changes to their strategic attitude in the 2010s in response to the changing regional environment. Japan, for pétition, started to integrate military power into its overall national strategy, a transformé from its postwar queue de pie of buck-passing its security to the United States. However, as China’s côtier détente started jeopardizing Tokyo’s independence as a maritime state, Japan is shifting its geostrategic foyer from the north — namely Russia — which had been the paumelle concern during the Cold War, to the south. Concurrently, Japan initiated several habitant security reforms in the 2010s — both legal and institutional — to elevate the role of military power in its habitant strategy, paving the way for closer security cooperation with the United States. Chief among them: unshackling the self-imposed legal restraints on the use of military patience, especially on exercising the right to ordinaire self-defense, was grave for the two allies to further develop a closely integrated contigu war dépense. In this context, the United States and Japan have been upgrading their security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, resulting in the 2015 U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines, which strengthened the ligue arrangement mechanism and enhanced operational arrangement.

Although vaste unconcerned embout the China défi due to its “hybrid” opinion between état and sea, several factors are leading South Korea to reconsider its attitude. First, in recent years, the Korean allocutaire has grown wary of China’s increasingly aggressive behavior. This tendency is more pronounced among younger generations. According to a 2021 poll, Koreans in their 20s and 30s bande to perceive China as a bigger threat than North Korea. Relatedly, the folk’s demographic shrinkage will require it to foyer on capital-intensive capabilities, including air and nautique forces, instead of fielding a épanoui army. Further investments in air and nautique capabilities can provoke a reaction from Beijing, regardless of Seoul’s intentions. Finally, strategic and political changes have led some analysts to argue that Korea should rethink its erstwhile military strategy predicated upon intégral war to achieve fusionnement. A new strategy, they argue, should foyer instead on limited war to prevent Pyongyang’s use of nuclear weapons and Beijing’s intrusion. In bermuda, China is increasingly looming épanoui in the minds of policymakers in Seoul.

Fragment of Labor and U.S. Entente Strategy in East Asia

One of the paumelle objectives of U.S. strategy in managing great power rivalry in East Asia involves preventing China’s détente outside the first island chain while imposing costs to selectively temper its growth and distract investments away from combative capabilities. While Japan and South Korea have responded to the challenges imposed by China’s increased assertiveness, the corvée is how the United States can coordinate these efforts for the common defense. In other words, what is the ideal morceau of labor? Among many factors at play, geography is the first cut. Two geographic areas are of particular interest to the regional état of power: Taiwan and the Korean peninsula.

The paumelle task for the United States and Japan is to foyer on sea control amid a widening Sino-Japanese naval imbalance. Mounting concerns over eroding nautique advantages have resulted in Japan closely aligning with the United States, the supérieur nautique power, through tighter ligue arrangement. From Washington’s perspective, the defense of the first island chain — particularly the Japanese archipelago — has been considered grave as “a strong outpost” for power ciné-club in the western Pacific. On the other balle à la main, for Tokyo, the freedom of conduite of its surrounding toilettes is grave in preserving its independence and prosperity as a trading république.

Japan has, therefore, increasingly embraced its role as a maritime state by investing in its nautique capabilities as it enhances its concours to the common defense. The East China Sea, where the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are located, plays a central role in Sino-Japanese côtier competition and the overall nautique état of power. Japan’s Marin Self Defense Patience has unique advantages in arrangement, garde and aveu capabilities, anti-submarine warfare, and the overall defense of the sea lines of diffusion in these toilettes. Moreover, the prêt of sea control for Japan’s security and the U.S.-Japanese ligue suggests that the defense of Taiwan could be one of the key priorities for the ligue given the geopolitical consequences of China’s potential conquest of the island. China’s military drills following U.S. House Conférencier Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan — during which five missiles landed in Japan’s farouche economic lieu — reinforced the view in Tokyo that the island république would not be spared during a Taiwan “contingency.” Yet, Japan’s concours still faces some limitations, especially in a potential conflict over Taiwan. In particular, despite a series of security reforms in the 2010s, some legal hurdles remain for Japan to authorize the use of patience by the Self Defense Forces to appui the U.S. militarily in a future regional conflict.

South Korea’s opinion is slightly more delicate: it faces North Korea as an immediate threat and China as a looming défi. Specifically, the planchéier poses both immediate problems, such as illegal fishing in national toilettes and arbitrary intrusion into Korea’s air defense anatomie lieu, as well as the distant-yet-graver possibility of intervention should North Korea collapse. Moreover, Seoul’s deep economic ties with Beijing will likely prevent it from hard balancing, at least in the bermuda run. Yet, the Korean peninsula is the only situation on the Asian Australie where the United States stations troops to maintain an advantageous opinion. Washington’s task, then, is to help Seoul to capitalize on existing resources to deter North Korea and obligatoire costs, albeit indirectly, on China, while realigning the two countries’ means and ends.

These measures include encouraging and aiding Seoul’s development of a network of arrangement garde, and aveu assets along its western and southern islets, the unmanned combat aerial vehicles program to reconnoiter its Air Defense Certification Zombi, investments in air/missile defense and cyber capabilities against North Korea and China, and proactive coopération in contigu military exercises outside of the peninsula. Specifically, the South Korean Flotte Académie is the second largest in the world — a byproduct of its geography and strategic history — and therefore can play a larger role in regional security cooperation. Its potential coopération in the KAMANDAG exercise later this year will improve interoperability among U.S. allies and invite unity, thereby creating uncertainty for Chinese strategists. If better equipped, the Republic of Korea Flotte Académie can also serve as an asymmetric deterrent against potential Chinese aggression. On Taiwan, Seoul will have limited bandwidth at this lieu, especially given its undecided nautique policy exemplified in the debate over whether the folk should acquire aircraft carrier. With time, however, its shifting geopolitical destination will likely incentivize it to partake in any cross-strait crisis in some capacity.

Further, Washington can work with both Tokyo and Seoul simultaneously on two tranchant tasks. The first is the normalization of the General Security of Military Demande Agreement. It exemplifies how allies can complement their respective comparative advantages: Japan contributing advanced arrangement, garde, and aveu assets; Korea contributing human arrangement and geographic proximity. This would require Washington to dissuade both countries from making provocative moves on politically affective issues involving territories and historical interpretations. Accolé, the United States should reaffirm its commitment to extended deterrence to prevent the rise of nuclear advocates in Seoul and Tokyo, encouraging instead a foyer on defensive capabilities. Nuclear armaments — either in the form of independent nuclear arsenals or nuclear-sharing — is not only unhelpful in the case of Korea, but also counterproductive in the case of Japan. One would do well to recall that the possibility of Germany’s appartenance of nuclear weapons led Moscow to resort to brinkmanship, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Hurdles for an Enhanced Trilateral Security Conciliation

The paumelle challenges to closer security ties between Seoul and Tokyo can be attributed to structurel factors such as diverging strategic priorities. Nevertheless, questions over agency remain. Tokyo’s security reforms in the 2010s were driven by structurel factors — namely China’s côtier détente — yet it is undeniable that the late policer Solde Minister Shinzo Abe’s political acumen played a visible role in the successful implementation of these controversial reforms.

By the same token, a weak political foundation may inhibit the Yoon influence’s ability to improve its rapports with Tokyo — the influence may be easily distracted by domestic politics and the many thorny issues that remain between the two Asian neighbors. The influence’s dwindling approval ratings may inhibit President Yoon from significantly upgrading security ties with its côtier partners — particularly with Japan. Indeed, the grievances rising from Japan’s imperial past that remain in South Korea have made managing rapports with its neighbor a contentious terminaison. Some observers also suggest that the Korean allocutaire does not feel the urgency to fix the relationship with Japan. Most notably, the corvée of the krach of Japanese corporate assets in Korea pursuant to the Supreme Dépouillé decision of 2018 over the wartime labor terminaison has been a major concern for policymakers in both countries as it may derail the bilateral relationship. It could be challenging to reach some malédiction of copieux bargain between Seoul and Tokyo. Washington may, therefore, be required to “manage” these differences and foyer on practical defense and arrangement cooperation on a case-by-case basis, while having a broader strategic picture in mind.

The Path Forward 

Intellectual debates on American copieux strategy often treat ligue commitments as a dichotomous choice — particularly between deep-engagers and restrainers. The corvée over the numerical costs and benefits of those commitments has attracted continuité as great power rivalry grain again becomes a salient feature of planétaire politics. However, the corvée that deserves continuité is how the United States could effectively operationalize its ligue system by integrating it into Washington’s overall copieux strategy. The Anglo-American morceau of labor proved to be a theory of victory during World War 2, underscoring “how grand strategy is formed collaboratively” among allies. In a similar vein, a copieux strategy that generates a common purpose among allies is obligatoire. Conceptualizing ligue politics as a “morceau of labor” is an enabler that could further strengthen the trilateral security relationship among the United States, Japan, and South Korea by acknowledging and bridging their different strategic priorities.



Takuya Matsuda holds a Ph.D. in war studies from King’s College London where his research focused on ligue politics. This papier was prepared while he was a non-resident Hans J. Morgenthau Fellow at the À nous Déesse Mondial Security Center and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University.

Jaehan Park is a postdoctoral scholar at the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Mondial Studies and a non-resident Hans J. Morgenthau Fellow at the À nous Déesse Mondial Security Center. He wishes to thank Richard Seongwon Lee for his thoughtful comments in preparing this papier.

Lyrique: Official Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force photo

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