What does the new ‘iron triangle’ mean for the Asia-Pacific?
Published: Aug 21, 2023 08:42 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

On August 18, the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral leaders' summit was held at Camp David. Despite taking place over half a day, the summit has been widely viewed by the three countries as having significant historical importance. The summit concluded with the release of three documents: The Spirit of Camp David: Joint Statement of Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the US (Joint Statement), the Camp David Principles, and the Commitment to Consult.

A consensus was reached and future plans encompass high-level trilateral consultations, strengthening security cooperation, broadening cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, deepening economic and technology cooperation, and expanding global health and people-to-people cooperation. 

Overall, trilateral cooperation emphasizes pragmatism and seamless connection. President Joe Biden and the leaders of Japan and South Korea appear to have constructed a new "iron triangle."

Will this "iron triangle" advance the security and prosperity of the region and the world, as mentioned in the Joint Statement, or will it introduce new turbulence? The answer might lean toward the latter for the following reasons: 

Firstly, the strengthened US-Japan-South Korea alliance mechanism may incite camp confrontation, potentially leading to a "new cold war" scenario in Northeast Asia. The summit discussions and the final outcome documents explicitly reference China's maritime rights protection activities in the South China Sea, the situation in the Taiwan Straits, North Korean missile launches and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The strategic coordination among the US, Japan and South Korea to counter China, North Korea and Russia undoubtedly forms a crucial consensus from the Camp David summit. In this sense, the summit is effectively fanning the flames of camp confrontation between the US-Japan-South Korea alliance and China, North Korea and Russia.

Secondly, the intensified regional tensions and increased security risks are foreseeable outcomes. With the reinforcement of the US-Japan-South Korea mechanism, the US has essentially completed the upgrading and reorganization of its security architecture from Northeast Asia and the South Pacific to the Indian Ocean. The alignment of the US-Japan-South Korea alliance mechanism, AUKUS, the Quad and the Five Eyes alliance can be effectively achieved. The frequent military actions will escalate the risk of military friction and even armed conflicts within the region.

Thirdly, the boosted trilateral cooperation undercuts ASEAN's centrality in the Asia-Pacific region. Although the Joint Statement said, "Our commitment to the region includes our unwavering support for ASEAN centrality and unity and the ASEAN-led regional architecture," and "We are committed to partnering closely with ASEAN to advance implementation and mainstreaming of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific," the three sides also stress that "On this historic occasion, we commit to expand our cooperation trilaterally and raise our shared ambition to a new horizon, across domains and across the Indo-Pacific and beyond."

In reality, the strengthening of the US-Japan-South Korea mechanism and the expansion of their regional influence will inevitably undermine ASEAN's previously established leadership position in the regional framework, and even the existing regional architecture may face the risk of unraveling.

Fourthly, in the economic domain, the US, Japan and South Korea are building a closed circle that hampers regional Asia-Pacific cooperation. The Joint Statement underscores trilateral cooperation in supply chain resilience, such as technology security and standards, clean energy, and energy security. These fields largely correspond to the areas where the US and its allies have recently imposed sanctions and restrictions on China. Following the summit, policy coordination among the US, Japan and South Korea in these domains may further intensify.

Of course, this "iron triangle" also has its own weaknesses. The US-Japan-South Korea trio has yet to sign a collective security treaty. As the risk of military conflicts or even warfare on the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan Straits and South China Sea increases, the US, Japan and South Korea must all consider the costs of involving themselves in military confrontations and conflicts. Such considerations might shake the foundation of the alliance. Secondly, the significant adjustments in the foreign policies of the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida administration and the South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol administration are driven to a considerable extent by domestic political needs tied to upcoming elections in their respective countries. The historical reconciliation between Japan and South Korea remains unfinished, and the current South Korean government has pursued an approach of substantial compromise to improve relations with Japan. This could also become a weakness in the US-Japan-South Korea alliance mechanism. Lastly, the economic decoupling of Japan and South Korea from China pursued by the US in recent years goes against the principles of economic development and the long-term interests of both countries. The possibility of policy adjustments by Japan and South Korea still exists.

Only time will tell whether the "iron triangle" of the US, Japan and South Korea is still impregnable.

The author is a senior researcher at the National Security Research Institute of Renmin University of China. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn