Over four days last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin participated in two bilateral “two-plus-two” (foreign and defense ministerial) meetings in Japan and South Korea. Blinken noted the significance of the Tokyo trip as it was “the first Cabinet-level, in-person, overseas travel of the Biden-Harris administration.”
Alas, it was a truly historic event for those of us who worked on the alliance in Japan. People like me used to have an obsession with two-plus-twos but now feel like we are living in a different age. Back in the 1990s, Tokyo was never considered a first destination for overseas travel by new U.S. secretaries under new administrations.
The official title of the Japan-U.S. two-plus-two is the Japan-United States Security Consultative Committee (SCC) as stipulated in the 1960 Mutual Security Treaty. Originally, however, the SCC’s American members were the U.S. ambassador to Japan and the commander of U.S. Forces Japan, not the secretaries of state and defense.
U.S. Forces Japan
In 1990, the SCC was upgraded to the full-ministerial level. Yet, in the 1990s, it was not easy to hold full-fledged two-plus-two meetings. Now, things have dramatically changed because “the strategic environment of the Indo-Pacific has entered into a completely different dimension” as Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi stated in the joint news conference.
After those two two-plus-two meetings, joint statements were released both in Tokyo and Seoul. If you carefully read those similar but intriguingly contrasting documents, you can predict the future course of the alliance among Japan, the United States and South Korea.
Linchpin or cornerstone?
The two joint statements reaffirmed that “the ROK-U.S. Alliance serves as the linchpin of peace, security and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and the Indo-Pacific region,” while “the U.S.-Japan Alliance remains the cornerstone of peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”
It’s not clear what the difference is between “linchpin” and “cornerstone,” but some in Seoul seem to care. “Linchpin” had been mainly used for Japan until 2010 but now it is the concept for the alliance with South Korea. What is more substantive, however, was the reference to “the Indo-Pacific region” for the U.S.-South Korea Alliance.
The Indo-Pacific region
Traditionally, the U.S. Department of Defense described the alliance with Seoul as “the linchpin of peace and prosperity only in Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula.” At the joint news conference in Seoul, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said that the U.S. and South Korea “are the linchpins of the peace, security, and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula, and the South,” apparently avoiding reference to “the Indo-Pacific” region.
South Korea seems to have accepted the “the Indo-Pacific” as an area to be covered by the “linchpin” alliance between the U.S. and South Korea. The Seoul document, however, only states that the two nations “reiterated their resolve to continue to work together to create a free and open Indo-Pacific region through cooperation with the ROK’s New Southern Policy.”
While the United States and Japan “renewed their commitment to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific and a rules-based international order,” Seoul’s commitment to “a free and open Indo-Pacific region” seems only indirect, through its “New Southern Policy” focused on Southeast Asia and India.
The ‘Quad’ plus
While the joint statement in Tokyo wrote “The March 12 Quad Summit demonstrated to the world our shared vision of a free, open, and inclusive region anchored by universal values and unconstrained by coercive power,” the joint statement in Seoul never mentioned the “Quad” (Australia, India, Japan and the United States) or the possible participation of South Korea therein (the Quad plus).
When asked in the joint news conference, Foreign Minister Chun stated, “there was no direct discussion about Korea joining Quad. However, we discussed how we can harmonize and coordinate the New Southern Policy of South Korea and the Indo-Pacific strategy of the U.S.”
Then he added, “if it conforms with the national interest of Korea and transparency and inclusiveness is ensured, we can join any regional cooperative body.” If what he meant was that Seoul does not wish to infuriate Beijing by joining the anti-China Quad, South Korea has not changed its foreign policy of balancing between China and the United States.
No reference to China
The most striking contrast was that there was no reference to China in the Seoul joint statement. In Tokyo, “The ministers committed to opposing coercion and destabilizing behavior toward others in the region, which undermines the rules-based international system.” This, however, is not the end of the story.
The Tokyo joint statement also referred to “the United States’ unwavering commitment to the defense of Japan under Article V of our security treaty, which includes the Senkaku Islands” and to the U.S. opposition “to any unilateral action that seeks to change the status quo or to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.”
One of the main objectives for the U.S. in the two two-plus-two meetings must be to improve the already-deteriorating Japan-South Korea relations. The Tokyo joint statement states that “Trilateral cooperation among the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea is critical for our shared security, peace, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”
In Seoul, however, the joint statement only says, with conditions and reservations, that “The ministers and secretaries affirmed the importance of ROK-U.S.-Japan trilateral cooperation and pledged to continue promoting mutually-beneficial, forward looking cooperation to promote peace, security and prosperity in the region.”
In all, Seoul may not be ready for the tripartite cooperation that the United States wishes to resume. While the U.S. and Japan “reaffirmed their commitment to the complete denuclearization of North Korea,” for example, South Korea still seems to be obsessed with the abortive “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Were the Tokyo and Seoul two-plus-two talks successful? For Japan, it was a great beginning and much more successful than expected. For South Korea, however, it must have been ambivalent. With no prospect for a renewed U.S.-North Korea dialogue or a successful OPCON (wartime operational control) transition to South Korea, Seoul may have to continue performing the tightrope in this rapidly changing strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific region.