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Commentary: Biden bids to bridge Tokyo-Seoul divide for Indo-Pacific defense

By HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei senior staff writer


TOKYO — U.S. President Joe Biden’s just-concluded visit to South Korea and Japan picked up where he left off in December 2013, when he was President Barack Obama’s vice president. Then, as now, he came on a mission in part to “connect” the two Asian allies.


“Our pride was tickled [by Biden’s visit], for sure,” said a veteran South Korean journalist, voicing the sentiment of many people in the country. The U.S.-South Korea summit last Saturday took place only 11 days after South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol was sworn in. The public excitement was understandable, as South Korea had never held a summit with the U.S. so soon after the inauguration of a new leader, and this time the U.S. president came visiting first.


China sent Vice President Wang Qishan, a close aide to President Xi Jinping, to Yoon’s inauguration. As Biden’s visit quickly followed the Chinese heavyweight’s, the South Korean public felt “the importance Washington places on its relationship with their country,” the journalist said.


Biden’s visit preceded Tuesday’s summit of the Quad, a loose security grouping of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. South Korea is not a Quad member, but strengthening ties with it is beneficial for the group, as the country now has its first conservative leader in five years.


Biden and Yoon quickly zeroed in on areas for cooperation, agreeing to align their strategies in the Indo-Pacific. They agreed to start discussions on expanding joint military exercises, while Seoul vowed to play a bigger role in regional geopolitics. Their joint statement reiterated the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as an essential element of security and prosperity in the region.


The bilateral summit and the Quad’s Tokyo meeting came at a time when security pundits are worried about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. In a strongly worded statement, the Quad expressed opposition to coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific.


“In the event of a Taiwan emergency, North Korea could become a bigger threat than Russia,” said Narushige Michishita, a professor at Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, at a news conference in Tokyo on April 15.


Michishita said that while attacking Taiwan, Beijing may try to provoke a crisis on the Korean Peninsula by inciting aggression from Pyongyang, backed by the support of its military. That way, China can divert U.S. and Japanese military resources from the Taiwan Strait, he said.


This nightmare scenario is already under discussion in the U.S. Congress. If it becomes reality, the U.S. and Japan will have to fight a two-front war in Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula.

In the absence of a security framework like NATO in East Asia, a close alliance among the U.S., Japan and South Korea is now as important as ever.


Many security experts say one of the goals of the Japan-U.S. security treaty is to protect not only Japan but also South Korea and Taiwan. The treaty states in its Article 6 that the U.S. stations its forces in Japan to contribute to “the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East.”


In addition, the two countries have a joint contingency plan, code-named 5055, that stipulates the deployment of the Japan Self-Defense Forces and U.S. troops in the event of a security emergency on the Korean Peninsula.


Meanwhile, the U.S. and South Korea are also solidifying their alliance. In a “two plus two” meeting of foreign and defense ministers in March 2021, the U.S. and South Korea affirmed that the alliance “serves as the linchpin of peace, security, and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and the Indo-Pacific region.” A “free and open Indo-Pacific” has become a keyword shared by South Korea and Japan.


Many experts have called the frayed ties between Japan and South Korea a “missing link” in security arrangements for the Indo-Pacific region. Yoon’s election as president could give the three allies opportunities to promote regional stability by strengthening their cooperation in dealing with North Korea and China.


South Korea is a big military power, having the world’s 10th-largest defense budget and 600,000 troops. The government plans to spend a total of 315 trillion won ($247 billion) on defense in the five years from 2022. Even if the U.S. and Japan are compelled to fight a two-front war, they can focus on defending Taiwan if South Korea takes the lead in dealing with North Korea.


South Korea already has a three-stage defense strategy against North Korea’s nuclear and missile attacks, including the Kill Chain preemptive strike system. The system, which includes ground-to-air missiles, could be mobilized if signs of imminent missile launches by Pyongyang were detected.


Japan is also considering acquiring the ability to attack enemy bases in counterstrikes. Japan and South Korea share the risk of being targeted for retaliation by North Korea if either of them attacks the country. “How to reach mutual understanding of possible consequences of the other party’s offensive action will become the biggest issue for Japan and South Korea in the coming year or two,” said Ken Jimbo, a professor at Keio University.


With Russia threatening the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine, one of the key issues taken up at both the U.S.-South Korea and U.S.-Japan summits must have been how to bolster the effectiveness of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” as a deterrent against threats from China and North Korea.


While Japan and the U.S. have continued their dialogue on ways to strengthen nuclear deterrence, Washington and Seoul in 2015 worked out the 5015 plan to deter and respond to nuclear attacks by North Korea. Tokyo and Seoul continue to share an interest in making the nuclear umbrella more effective by working closely with the U.S.


Yoon is also eager to promote the country’s economic security. He plans to seek an opportunity to join the Quad by first participating in working groups for advanced technology and other fields. During Biden’s trip to Asia, his government signed up to participate in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a U.S.-led initiative, with an eye toward expanding global supply chains for strategic goods.


Leading conglomerates, such as Samsung, will likely give IPEF a strong push, one industry expert said.


Yoon could see his approval rating rise thanks to Biden’s visit to South Korea, boosting the prospects of his conservative party in the nationwide local elections in June, the first major electoral challenge for the new president.


“Opportunities should not be missed while Yoon has momentum. Strike while the iron is hot,” said a high-ranking South Korean government official, stressing the importance of prompt action by Japan, the U.S. and South Korea to strengthen ties. Biden, who struggled to bridge the divide between Japan and South Korea nine years ago, must be well aware that the two allies can ill afford to miss this opportunity.


Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Yoon may soon have a chance to meet. Eager to expand the reach of security cooperation beyond Europe, NATO has invited four Asia-Pacific countries — Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand — to its summit in Spain at the end of June.

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