▶ It goes without saying that robust trilateral partnership of Japan, the Republic of Korea and the United States is indispensable in light of the acute security environment in today’s world.
▶ Unity of efforts for upholding the rules-based international order built on the principle of the rule of law is critically important to ensure peace and stability of today’s world.
▶ The three leaders should send a clear message to the world to show their joint resolve to uphold the rules-based international order.
International security environment in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine
It goes without saying that robust trilateral partnership of Japan, the Republic of Korea and the United States is indispensable in light of the acute security environment in today’s world.
Japan and South Korea neighbor on the three nuclear authoritarian states: Russia, China, and North Korea. Russia has been shaking the basis of the rules-based international order by invading Ukraine. Russian navy is active in the Indo-Pacific. Russia is enhancing its strategic partnership with China. The Russian war of aggression set a bad example for North Korea, but lack of international attention to North Korean continues even after its multiple ICBM launches. China is more assertive today. Its ambition to build a world-class military continues in a rapid pace, including its strategic nuclear capability. Its maritime expansion is continuing, too.
The new National Security Strategy of Japan says that the possibilities cannot be precluded that a serious situation similar to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine may arise in the Indo-Pacific, especially in East Asia. Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio often says that Ukraine today might be Asia tomorrow. It is not just about the tension across the Taiwan Strait.
An important lesson from the Russia-Ukraine war is that no country can achieve its national security all on its own in today’s highly connected world. International partnership is indispensable.
Momentum of our trilateral partnership
International order is not just about balance of power also about values and norm. E.H. Carr wrote, “If it is utopian to ignore the element of power, it is an unreal kind of realism which ignores the element of morality in any world order,” and, “No political society can exist without law.”
Unity of efforts for upholding the rules-based international order built on the principle of the rule of law is critically important to ensure peace and stability of today’s world. As all the key national security documents of the three countries, i.e., the US National Security Strategy of the Biden Administration, Japan’s National Security Strategy and new plan for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific of the Kishida Cabinet, and South Korea’s Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region of the Yoon Suk Yeol Administration, aim to maintain and strengthen the rules-based international order, these powers have a robust principled basis of trilateral cooperation.
The leaders of the three countries established a formal framework for trilateral cooperation, i.e., Phnom Penh Statement for Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific, last November, in which they are committed to align their “collective efforts in pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific, that is inclusive, resilient, and secure.” It is not just about how to counter the growing threat created by the North Korean nuclear and missile ambition. It includes their commitment to stand with Ukraine against Russia. It also includes opposition to any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in waters of the Indo-Pacific, bearing China’s maritime expansion in mind. It also reiterates the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of security and prosperity in the international community. Their approaches to those three revisionist powers are not the same, but as long as these three authoritarian states are against the rules-based international order, Japan, South Korea and the US will stay on the same page and will be able to well align their strategies based on the cooperative spirit generated by the Phnom Penh Statement.
Importance of the trilateral partnership has been reconfirmed in the context of Japan-US Alliance, too. Joint Statement of the Japan-US “2+2” ministerial of January 2023 says, “The Ministers also emphasized the importance of further deepening their cooperation with the Republic of Korea and exploring opportunities for multilateral and trilateral exercises and other activities, including in areas such as ballistic missile defense, antisubmarine warfare, maritime security, search and rescue, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief.” The menu of cooperation shows that the expectation of Japan and the US to the trilateral cooperation is much more than just about North Korea.
Of particular importance from a Japanese perspective is the Yoon Administration’s position on the US and Japan.
Its strong resolve to strengthen the Korea-US Alliance as a global comprehensive strategic alliance is articulated in its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Washington Declaration between South Korea and the US also proves it as it defines the Korea-US Alliance as “a truly global Alliance that champions democratic principles, enriches economic cooperation, and drives technological advancements.” Also, the Yoon Administration regards Japan as Korea’s closest neighbor and its strong will to seek a forward-looking partnership is manifested prior to defining its relationship with China.
Japan also recognizes the great importance of the Japan-Korea partnership in its National Security Strategy.
The recent development of military exchanges between the two countries such as participation of a naval supply ship of Korea in the international naval review hosted by Japan last November and visit of a destroyer of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force to Korea this May symbolizes a rapprochement of the two countries.
Thus, the momentum of the trilateral partnership of these three countries is certain just before the trilateral summit meeting at Camp David.
Expectations for the future of the partnership
It is critically important to strengthen the trilateral partnership at this juncture. As our three countries share common security objectives and the trilateral partnership is built on shared principles and values, the partnership will move forward. Camp David will provide a precious opportunity for this.
However, the basis of the cooperation is not robust enough. Particularly, the Japan-Korea relationship remains fragile. Japan is not optimistic about the future of the bilateral relationship. Korea might as well. If it remains fragile, it will have a negative impact on the regional and global security.
Too much expectation to Camp David should be avoided, but a substantial discussion to lead to concrete steps for the following three points would be desirable:
First, policy coordination to address China and North Korea. While the most serious and long-term challenge is China, North Korean issues should not be left out as the lack of international attention to North Korea causes a serious problem.
Second, their joint efforts to strengthen the credibility of the US extended deterrence. Synergy of Korea-US efforts and Japan-US efforts should be generated.
Finally, institutionalization of the trilateral cooperation to make it more robust. The possibility that the trilateral summit will become a regular event is reported. It would be a good idea. Establishment of a trilateral secretariat, “2+2+2” ministerial and/or Japan-Korea “2+2” ministerial would be worthwhile, too.
The three leaders should send a clear message to the world to show their joint resolve to uphold the rules-based international order.
 E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939, An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001, p. 216.
 Lee Bon-young, “S. Korea, US, Japan to pursue regular summits, bolstering cooperation on countering China,” Hankyoreh, August 2, 2023, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/1102743.html.