Significance of Blinken’s and Austin’s Visits to Seoul and Tokyo
Prof Rajaram Panda

No sooner than the first virtual summit of the four Quad leaders discussed the regional issues and underlined the importance of rules of law and free and open Indo-Pacific, the Joe Biden administration sent his Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on a four-day visit to the two Asian allies –Japan and South Korea - from March 15 to 18, highlighting Washington’s renewed focus on alliances in Indo-Pacific in the face of an assertive China. This was the first diplomatic debut by the top US officials after Biden took office. Whilst in Seoul, the two leaders talked about the regional issues centring on how China is posing a threat to the region as well as the North Korean issue, they had the 2+2 dialogue with their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo. The 2+2 meeting, officially called the Security Consultative Committee, has been held from time to time when the two countries need to review the changing international situation.1 The two leaders then flew to New Delhi, another Quad member, to have similar dialogue with their Indian counterparts. This commentary shall confine itself to analysing what transpired in their discussions in Seoul and Tokyo. The significance of Blinken and Austin’s visit to India has been kept out of this commentary.

The flurry of diplomatic activities is triggered by the perceived threat coming from China’s belligerence and assertiveness in regional affairs, thereby disturbing the existing equilibrium and threatening the economic and security interests of several nations in Asia. Addressing this new situation demands a coordinated response so that no single nation shall be allowed to take any unilateral action adversely impacting the interests of other nations.

In the Quad summit that preceded the visit to Tokyo, the leaders of the four Quad nations had pledged to work to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific, a major priority for Tokyo. Tokyo is also keen to cooperate on maritime, cyber and economic security in the face of challenges from Beijing. By touching down in Tokyo and Seoul, the two important allies in Asia, the Biden administration was sending a powerful signal about its priorities. While in Tokyo, the two leaders received request from Tokyo for supporting the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and other subjects such as commitment to boost Covid-19 vaccine supplies in Asia that figured at the Quad summit. The issue of climate change also figured in the discussion. The US-Japan cooperation shall be further firmed up when Biden is expected to receive Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in the White House in April, the first foreign leader to have that honour.

Known as the 2+2 talks, Blinken and Austin met their Japanese counterparts Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi to discuss a host of issues. Issues on the agenda ranged from freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas and semiconductor supply-chain to the North Korean nuclear issue and a military coup in Myanmar. The leaders from both sides criticised China’s “coercion and aggression” in Asia. This was their first in-person talks since Biden took office in January. Recognising that democracy and human rights in the region are being challenged, the leaders agreed to cooperate for a free and open Indo-Pacific.

What does the joint statement released after the talks say? It shared strong worry over Beijing’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, “unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea” and “unilateral action that seeks to change the status quo” over the Japan-controlled East China Sea Islands that China also claims. The statement also stressed the importance of “peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait.2 Blinken and Austin were more forceful in remarking that "China's behaviour was inconsistent with the existing international order and presents political, economic, military and technological challenges to the alliance and to the international community."

Watching from the sidelines, North Korea anticipated that the US leaders would raise North Korea’s nuclear issue while in Tokyo and Seoul. This prompted North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister Kim Yo Jong to warn that the US should “refrain from causing a stink” if it wants to sleep in peace for the next four years. The joint US-South Korea military exercises also came under North Korea’s scanner. For long, Pyongyang has been seeing such exercises as rehearsal for invasion of North Korea.

Indeed, since the end of the War and signing of the security alliance treaties with Japan and South Korea, the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral relationship has worked as the anchor of and cornerstone of the US diplomatic and security policy in East Asia. This relationship has been sustained by shared values, temporary differences at times notwithstanding. For this reason, the US leaders refrained from mentioning publicly the strained relations between Tokyo and Seoul over wartime compensation issues. It may be recalled that the comfort women issue has remained a constant irritant between Japan and South Korea. Bilateral ties turned ugly when in 2019 a South Korean court ruled the Japanese companies to pay reparations to Korean labourers employed during World War II. This led to trade curbs by both sides and Seoul threatened to scrap a bilateral military intelligence-sharing agreement. The US role looked sticky as this bilateral agreement is a major symbol of the countries’ three-way security cooperation in the region. In view of this, Austin reminded the allies about China’s “destabilising actions” and the need for burying bilateral differences and developing operational capability to respond quickly to the security threat like China.

The US role in consolidating the partnerships with Japan and South Korea is very important as the issues are complicated. Besides Japan-South bilateral differences, Japan has its own limitation as its Constitution prohibits the use of force in settling international disputes. Even marginal increase in its defence expenditure for securing its security raises eyebrows in the region. Japan’s past has remained fresh in public memory in China, South Korea and some countries in Southeast Asia. This is a major dilemma for Japanese leaders during the post-War years. Also, in view of the economic interconnectedness, any drastic action by Japan against China could hurt its own interests as well. This does not mean that Japan is not worried about threat from China. It is concerned about China’s escalating maritime activity in the region.

Besides Chinese incursion into the East China Sea by naval vessels where the Senkaku Islands is disputed, Beijing has made considerable forays into the South China Sea where it has built man-made islands and equipped them with military equipment. China is pressing its claims to virtually all of the sea’s key fisheries and waterways.

In view of this fragile security situation, Blinken and Austin assured their Japanese counterparts Washington’s “unwavering commitment” to defend Japan in its dispute with China should the latter escalate tensions. Similar commitments were also made with regard to South China Sea where Beijing makes “unlawful” maritime claims. Such assurances were necessary in view of the passing of the new Coast Guard Law by China in January allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels. Even before this law was passed, China had been sending its coast guard vessels frequently to chase away fishing vessels from countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines with which it has disputes. Sometimes, China has also sunk the rival’s fishing vessels. The new law giving the right to fire shall empower the coast guard further. The US allies therefore needed the US assurance that it would come to their rescue when needed.

Despite China’s brazen expansionist design visible in all vulgarity for the world to see, China denies that it is expansionist; it claims to be defending its territorial rights. In a veiled threat, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian reacted by saying that the U.S. - Japan dialogue “should not target or harm the interests of third parties.” It transpires that China is concerned that the Biden administration is determined to strongly engage with the Indo-Pacific region. The virtual Quad summit was the first such major signal. China should take note of this.

South Korea is the other important Asian ally in the US strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific region. North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have remained a matter of worry. Former US President Donald Trump did try to engage with the North Korean leader and had even three summits. But nothing came out of those and the nuclear issue remains where it was before the summit. On the other hand, Pyongyang has made further advances in weaponization and adding more sophisticated missiles into its arsenal. Besides the threat from China, the threat from North Korea’s nuclear capability is no less dangerous. South Korea needed assurances of the US support. Blinken has said North Korea is becoming the centre of global geopolitics.2

Indeed, dismissing the warning from Kim’s sister to “refrain from causing a stink”, Blinken and Austin landed in Seoul to work out the process to persuade Kim Jong-un to return to talks, which have remained stalled for more than two years. As the North Korean leader remains determined to keep the arsenals and unlikely to concede an inch without substantial sanctions relief and assurance for regime survival, the US and the allies might have to settle for a deal that would freeze North Korea’s nuclear programme in return for relaxing sanctions.3 The existing manufactured nuclear weapons are also unlikely to be removed, though promise to halt further advancement could be possible. That itself is a tall order and might not be a realistic solution from Pyongyang’s point of view. After the three summits with Trump yielded with no positive outcome, Kim has repeatedly threatened to enlarge his nuclear arsenal in protest of what he called US hostility. That position is unlikely to change anytime soon.

The 2+2 talks between Blinken and Austin with their South Korean counterparts were the first in five years. As has been in the past, Pyongyang is known to have found various ways to put pressure whenever talks for negotiations are suggested. Therefore, Kim Yo Jong’s threatening words could be a pressure tactic and might come out with weapons tests to increase its bargaining leverage in future negotiations with Washington. North Korea could be testing Biden in the early days of his presidency. However, knowing well how the Kim regime behaves, Washington is unlikely to take Kim Yo Jong’s warning seriously.

One possible way Biden might pursue is something similar to the 2005 Iran accord that froze Iran’s nuclear programme in return for lifting sanctions. But North Korean case is different than Iran. Even if Biden might not abandon pursuing the efforts to denuclearise North Korea, it would be kite flying if the Biden administration expects a complete roll back in North’s nuclear capability. That would not be a realistic diplomatic proposition. Therefore, an Iran-style deal is unlikely to work for North Korea.

Like Japan, South Korea’s position vis-a-vis China is too vulnerable as their economies are heavily interdependent and any dramatic reversal of the ongoing process could hurt all three. Like Japan, South Korea too hosts about 28,500 American troops and burden-sharing issue remains as a perennial matter of negotiation. Then, the security alliance issue with the US in view of Chinese threat cannot be undone by any means. Under the circumstance, the best guarantee for both Japan and South Korea is to links their security interests within the framework of larger regional institutional mechanism. Japan is already a member of the Quad group. South Korea is not but could be future candidates when and if Quad is open to embrace like-minded countries that uphold the values Quad members stand for.

China is critical of the Quad and always sees as an attempt to contain its ambitions. At the moment, Quad is not open but could be in the coming years. Even in an expanded Quad format, countries such as Vietnam and South Korea might be eager to join but South Korea, unlike Vietnam, is not expected to openly voice its opinion regarding China for the reasons explained above. So, the geostrategic matrix in the Northeast Asia is too complicated and navigating through this turbulent time requires deft and matured diplomacy so that the existing power equilibrium is not unduly disturbed, if not substantially improved.

Endnotes
  1. Junnosuke Kobara, “US and Japan take on China provocations with 'unbreakable' alliance”, Nikke Shimbun, 15 March 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Indo-Pacific/US-and-Japan-take-on-China-provocations-with-unbreakable-alliance
  2. “Japan, U.S. share China worry as ministers meet in Tokyo”, The Asahi Shimbun, 17 March 2021, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14275456
  3. Jim Garamone, “U.S., Japanese Leaders Agree Chinese Behavior Endangers Peace”, 16 March 2021, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2021/03/mil-210316-dodnews01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3022%2eon0ao069c5%2e2sp9
  4. “Top U.S. officials weigh North Korea options in talks in Seoul”, The Asahi Shimbun, 17 March 2021, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14276683

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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