In its attempts to revitalize trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea, the Biden administration is facing a decadeslong dispute between the allies that is jeopardizing Washington’s goals of curbing Beijing’s growing aggression and Pyongyang’s threats, according to experts.
Senior Biden administration officials have been holding multiple meetings with key allies in East Asia to forge trilateral cooperation aimed at achieving its goals for the region and the Indo-Pacific.
The Pentagon said Washington’s plans for the region include directing “cooperation with allies and partners” so that it could “deter Chinese military aggression and threats from North Korea,” according to its global posture review released Monday.
Reemergence of dispute
The latest Washington-Tokyo-Seoul trilateral effort met with a setback, however, when a long-standing strain in Seoul-Tokyo relations surfaced during recent trilateral talks, derailing a joint press conference on November 17.
Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Mori Takeo objected to having a scheduled joint press conference alongside South Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun because of a long-running territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks — known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan — a set of islets in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea.
Seoul and Tokyo’s deep historical animosity also stems from the Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
Speaking alone at the press conference, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said, “There are some bilateral differences between Japan and the Republic of Korea that are continuing to be resolved.” The Republic of Korea (ROK) is the official name of South Korea.
After Sherman spoke, Masashi Mizobuchi, a spokesperson at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, said Japanese officials withdrew from the press conference to protest a November 16 visit to the disputed islands by the chief of the South Korean police, according to Reuters.
South Korean senior officials and lawmakers visit the islets occasionally to reassert South Korea’s territorial claim.
At the time, Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, said his government felt holding a joint press conference with South Korea was inappropriate while the countries were embroiled in a dispute over the islet.
South Korea’s Choi said he decided not to take part in the briefing out of concern the dispute would overshadow other issues, according to Bloomberg. “If we held a joint press conference, Japanese media would have asked questions related to the visit, and the two sides would have to rebut one another’s position on Dokdo. We were worried about that,” Choi told reporters in Washington.
“The weak state of Japan-ROK relations is one of the Biden administration’s greatest vulnerabilities in Asia today,” said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It allows North Korea to drive wedges and China to resist pressure to abide by international norms,” he added.
According to Daniel Sneider, a Japan-Korea relations expert at Stanford University, a possible consequence of failing to coordinate trilateral ties puts Washington’s objective of countering China at risk.
“If I were Japanese, and as an American, I would worry a lot more about the Chinese efforts to exercise control and domination over the entire Korean Peninsula,” Sneider said. “They already do that over North Korea, more effectively than I would say about Taiwan.”
It is “very important to focus on common security and diplomatic objectives” rather than trying to “broker disagreements about the past,” Green said, adding that the Biden administration has been “making some modest progress” despite some setbacks.
A State Department spokesperson, who preferred to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject, on Wednesday told VOA’s Korean Service that the Biden administration was “committed to strengthening” the trilateral relationship, which is “critical for our shared security and common interest in defending freedom and democracy.”
Both the Japanese and the South Korean foreign ministries also told VOA’s Korean Service that they recognized the importance of trilateral cooperation.
A Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson who also preferred anonymity because of the subject matter said Thursday that “the collaboration among Japan, the United States and the ROK [is] important for regional peace and stability beyond issues related to North Korea.”
Masashi Mizobuchi, a spokesperson at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, emphasized Wednesday that it was “vital to maintain the unity” among Japan, South Korea and the U.S.
“These three countries continue to exchange views” on “future response regarding North Korea,” ways to cooperate on “realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific, China’s actions in the East and South China seas,” and other global issues, Mizobuchi said.
A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson, while also stressing the importance of the three-way cooperation, said on Wednesday that “the three countries continue to engage in active communication and exchange at various levels, including among the foreign ministers, the vice foreign ministers and special representatives for Korean Peninsula affairs.” The South Korean spokesperson also preferred to remain anonymous because of the subject matter.
Sneider said the Biden administration should intervene through high-level diplomacy committed to trilateral cooperation, given the long-standing historical differences between the two allies.
“What is absent is anything at the leadership level” that would show political will of strengthening the trilateral ties, Sneider said. “If you’re a midlevel or a senior-level ministry official in either country, you’re only going to go so far if you don’t have the signal from the top.”
Patricia Kim, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said, “The continued efforts by the Biden administration to emphasize the importance of trilateral cooperation and to create space for the U.S., Japan and ROK to discuss common concerns and coordinate actions is the right approach.”
Jiha Ham contributed to this report.