Patching up the Asia Pacific version of “NATO” is not so easy!

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At the end of June, the NATO summit was held in Madrid, the capital of Spain. As a specially invited “partner country” of NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and other Asia Pacific allies of the United States also attended the summit. In addition, the summit also arranged two leaders’ meetings between the United States, Japan and South Korea, and Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia.

In recent years, the United States has stepped up efforts to win over Asia Pacific countries through the “India Pacific strategy” and tried to piece together the “Asia Pacific version of NATO”. Some analysts believe that the United States is trying to push NATO to the Asia Pacific region in order to achieve the goal of maintaining its hegemony and strengthening strategic containment. However, these Asia Pacific countries are not monolithic, but have their own considerations.

What are the calculations of the Asia Pacific allies of the United States? How many challenges does the United States face to enhance the cohesion of the Asia Pacific Alliance?

Wen | Li hangling Institute of international relations, Shengli Foreign Affairs College

Editor Ding Guizi outlook think tank

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Is the trip to Madrid just a show?

At a summit attended by all Western powers, the leaders of the four Asia Pacific countries were invited to attend for the first time, which undoubtedly attracted attention. In comparison, the trilateral talks between the United States, Japan and South Korea focus more on the North Korean nuclear issue and other Indian Pacific Affairs, with the intention of restoring and strengthening cooperation between the United States, Japan and South Korea, and clearing the way for the United States to consolidate its “Indian Pacific strategy”. The meeting of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand exchanged views on international affairs, including the situation in Ukraine, rarely involving specific topics in the Indian Pacific region, and the gesture significance is greater than the substantive significance.


On June 29, 2022, the two-day NATO summit was held in Madrid, the capital of Spain. Figure Xinhua News Agency

*Reaffirm the alliance’s commitment to strengthen trilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan and South Korea.

Since the Biden administration came to power, it has always emphasized the importance of trilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan and South Korea, because this can not only enhance the U.S. military presence in the Asia Pacific region, but also provide a more solid pillar for the U.S. “India Pacific strategy”. The last meeting of the leaders of the three countries dates back to September 2017. Therefore, for the United States, it is of great significance to promote the face-to-face talks between the leaders of Japan and South Korea. Biden directly called it a “historic trilateral meeting”.

In fact, the warming of Japan ROK relations had already shown itself before the meeting. Before taking office, Yin Xiyue sent a “South Korea Japan policy consultation delegation” to Japan to express his desire to repair South Korea Japan relations. In May, Japanese Foreign Minister Lin Fangzheng attended the inauguration ceremony of Yin Xiyue as the prime minister’s special envoy and handed over a handwritten letter from Fumio Kishida. Yin Xiyue also expressed the hope to meet with Kishida at an early date and work together to improve South Korea Japan relations. Since then, the “Kimpo Haneda” route, which was shut down for more than two years due to the epidemic, has resumed operations, and the defense ministers of the United States, Japan and South Korea have basically reached an agreement on restarting military exercises.

At the meeting, the leaders of the three countries repeatedly stressed the necessity of deepening alliance cooperation and conducted coordinated discussions on some regional issues. Biden reiterated the unshakable defense commitment of the United States to Japan and South Korea, emphasized the importance of trilateral cooperation, and was recognized by Yin Xiyue and Kishida Wenxiong. The leaders of the three countries hope to continue to strengthen cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue, deal with relevant issues through trilateral dialogue, enhance the deterrence of the alliance, and hold joint military exercises, and declare to strengthen cooperation on regional and global issues. Yin Xiyue even made a rare statement to build the relationship between the United States, Japan and South Korea into “another core pillar of global peace and stability”.

*Focus on regional issues and gather consensus on cooperation among the four countries.

Before the leaders’ meeting of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, Fumio Kishida stressed the need to promote the four countries to participate in the NATO summit on a regular basis. During the talks, Kishida served as the moderator of the meeting. Japan’s positive attitude towards promoting cooperation among the four countries is evident. In recent years, Japan is also committed to building a multi-layer security system with the Japan US alliance as the core. The other three countries expressed their views on the talks through various channels, including agreeing to explore the “Indo Pacific strategy” among the four countries and promoting the freedom and opening up of the Indo Pacific region.

However, relatively speaking, the talks lacked substantive content, and the leaders of the four countries only gave courtesy greetings, saying that they would use their respective advantages, maintain close coordination, promote cooperation with NATO, and take the lead in deepening the communication between India and the Pacific and NATO. As for the specific issues in the Indian Pacific region, especially the China related issues, the leaders of the four countries did not propose to discuss them, and even tried to avoid mentioning them in other public occasions.


It’s easy to express goodwill to each other, but it’s difficult to dispel past grievances

Even if the leaders of the United States, Japan and South Korea repeatedly stressed the need to deepen alliance cooperation, the actions of the Yin Xiyue government after taking office added a little temperature to the cold South Korea Japan relations, and it is difficult to cover up the long-standing contradictions and differences between Japan and South Korea.


Spanish flag and NATO flag on the square of the goddess of the earth in Madrid, Spain, on June 28, 2022. Figure Xinhua News Agency

*There are differences in strategic objectives

There are great differences between Japan and South Korea in terms of strengthening cooperation between the United States, Japan and South Korea and participating in the “Indo Pacific strategy” led by the United States. The distrust between Japan and South Korea also limits the in-depth cooperation among the three parties.

South Korea not only wants to deter North Korea by consolidating the relationship between the United States, Japan and South Korea, but also wants to highlight Strategic Autonomy in foreign policy and seek greater international influence through “medium power diplomacy”. This has led South Korea to hesitate whether to join the regional strategy led by the United States and Japan. Especially during the period when the progressives were in power, the South Korean government was very cautious about promoting cooperation between the United States, Japan and South Korea. More importantly, there are still historical issues, island disputes and other differences between Japan and South Korea, which have led to continuous discord in Japan South Korea relations.

For Japan, the main goals are nothing more than two points. One is to participate in international affairs with the support of the United States, providing opportunities to get rid of the post-war system and enhance diplomatic influence; The second is to try our best to retain the United States to maintain its presence in India and the Pacific in order to contain China.

*Economic and trade frictions, territorial sovereignty disputes and other practical issues

Due to the fermentation of historical problems, economic and trade frictions have also occurred between Japan and South Korea. As early as July 2019, Japan unilaterally announced to strengthen the export control of three semiconductor core raw materials to South Korea, and proposed to remove South Korea from its export white list. In view of South Korea’s high dependence on Japan’s economy, Japan’s move has dealt a great blow to South Korea’s information and communication industry. To this end, South Korea also removed Japan from the trade white list and filed a complaint with the WTO.

The Korean government and opposition also expressed strong concern and opposition to Japan’s discharge of nuclear waste water into the sea. In South Korea’s view, Japan’s move not only pollutes the marine environment, but also poses a potential threat to the health and safety of South Korean people.

The territorial sovereignty dispute between Japan and South Korea over Dokdo (Japan calls it “Takeshima”) is also a barrier that cannot be bypassed by the cooperation between the two countries. Both countries declared this small island with an area of less than 0.2 square kilometers as their own territory, and strongly protested the relevant actions of the other side. Just before and after the Yin Xiyue government came to power, Japan and South Korea also blamed each other on this matter: Japan protested South Korea’s plan to closely measure the topography of the island and the surrounding waters, while South Korea protested Japan’s assertion that the island was Japanese territory in the “diplomatic blue book”.

From the actual situation, the contradictions between the two sides on practical issues can most directly affect the bilateral relations and the trilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan and South Korea. In August 2019, when the economic and trade frictions between the two sides intensified, South Korea announced the abolition of the “Korea Japan military affairs protection agreement”, and the defense cooperation between the two sides almost stopped; In November 2021, the joint press conference of the deputy foreign ministers of the United States, Japan and South Korea was forced to terminate due to Japan’s protest against the South Korean police commissioner’s landing on Dokdo

*Labor compensation, “comfort women” and other historical issues

Japan South Korea relations have been hampered by various historical issues. Japan opposes the South Korean court to enforce the assets of Japanese enterprises to compensate South Korean workers in World War II, but for South Korea, this matter is related to national feelings and the liquidation of crimes against Japan. At present, even if the Yin Xiyue government wants to establish an official People consultation mechanism to properly resolve the contradictions between South Korea and Japan, South Korea is also difficult to come up with a plan that satisfies Japan.

The issue of “comfort women” has also been postponed for several years and has not been resolved. From the civil mediation brought by the victims of “comfort women” in South Korea to the local court in 2013 to the ruling made by the central local court in Seoul, South Korea in 2021, Japan has always taken a negative attitude, saying that South Korea’s practices violate the provisions of international law and the Japan South Korea “comfort women” agreement.

In addition, the Anti Japanese sentiment caused by the contents of history textbooks and Japanese officials’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in South Korea also hindered Japan South Korea cooperation.

As for how to solve the historical problems between Japan and South Korea, former South Korean Foreign Minister Zheng Yirong said that if Japan did not have a correct historical understanding, it could not solve the problems left over by history. This almost reflects the unanimous attitude of the Korean government and opposition to Japan.

*Differences in policy towards North Korea

Although the United States, Japan and South Korea all hope to strengthen cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue, and Japan also expressed at the NATO summit that it hopes to strengthen cooperation with NATO countries on promoting nuclear disarmament and preventing nuclear proliferation, taking care of South Korea’s concerns to a certain extent, Japan and South Korea also have differences on specific policies towards North Korea.

In essence, Japan and South Korea have different focuses and policy objectives. Japan is concerned about the North Korean nuclear missile issue and the kidnapping of Japanese hostages, while South Korea pays more attention to safeguarding national security and achieving the reunification of the peninsula. On the specific path, Japan advocates a tough position against the DPRK, and puts pressure through sanctions, joint military exercises and other means; While relying on the US ROK alliance to maintain military deterrence, South Korea is also seeking a moderate way to solve the North Korean nuclear issue. The Moon Jae-in government tried its best to resume dialogue and cooperation in order to promote the normalization of inter Korean relations and the final reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

It can be seen that the policies of the United States and Japan towards North Korea are closer, and Japan has spared no effort to cooperate with the United States to prevent being abandoned on the North Korean nuclear issue. There are many voices in South Korea to strengthen diplomatic autonomy, get rid of the constraints of major powers and dominate the affairs on the peninsula.

*Differences in China Policy

At present, there are also many differences between Japan and South Korea in the goals and ideas of their China policies. Japan has curbed China by consolidating the US Japan alliance and strengthening the cooperation between the United States, Japan, India and Australia, while South Korea has a relatively positive attitude. In addition to South Korea’s higher economic dependence on China, there are also considerations of hoping that China will play a more active role in the Peninsula issue.

Although Yin Xiyue clearly stated his position of strengthening the US ROK alliance, improving relations with Japan and joining the “Indo Pacific strategy” in the election, completely shifting to the US and Japan is not in the national interests of South Korea, and South Korea is also very worried about the possible “one-sided” Yin Xiyue government.


The four countries are on the same stage, and their differences are obvious

Judging from the contents of the talks and the positions of the four governments, the four countries on the same stage have little significance in strengthening quadrilateral cooperation and promoting the four countries’ joint participation in the “Indo Pacific strategy”, let alone establishing a new quadrilateral cooperation mechanism or “quasi alliance” relationship. Based on the policy positions of various countries and their relations with the United States, the differences between the four countries on many issues are still obvious.

*Different countries have different diplomatic strategies

Although the four countries belong to Asia Pacific countries, there are great differences in diplomatic strategic priorities. Japan focuses on realizing “national normalization” and eradicates institutional obstacles in order to seek a greater international voice. At the same time, it uses the opportunity of the U.S. “Indo Pacific strategy” to promote multi-directional alliances to hedge and balance China and maintain the Indo Pacific order dominated by the United States and Japan.

Due to the limitation of strength, the diplomatic strategies of the three countries have obvious regional characteristics, that is, they focus more diplomatic resources on their own regions and strive to play an important role in building regional order. Specifically, in the short term, South Korea will still focus its diplomacy on Northeast Asia and seek to exert greater influence on the peninsula affairs, so as to promote the final settlement of the Korean nuclear issue and maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia. While maintaining the stability of the South Pacific region, Australia strives to cooperate with the US “India Pacific strategy” and highlights its own value by participating in regional bilateral and multilateral security cooperation. New Zealand has focused its diplomacy on key issues related to its own survival and the South Pacific region.

These differences make it difficult for countries to invest a lot of resources in issues of concern to other countries, resulting in the inability to reach a smooth consensus on the priorities, goals and paths of cooperation.

*Differences in China Policy

The main purpose of Japan’s participation in the NATO summit is to win over NATO’s voice on Indian Pacific Affairs in order to jointly deal with China. Other three countries also criticized China implicitly or explicitly during the summit. However, in combination with the traditional China policies and the layout of national interests, countries still face many challenges if they want to keep the same pace in their China policies.

From the perspective of South Korea, Yin Xiyue himself did not make public comments on China related issues, and South Korea also avoided mentioning relevant contents in its official statement. Soon after the end of his visit to Madrid, New Zealand Prime Minister Adrian said that even if “China becomes more confident in pursuing its own interests”, New Zealand and China “can and should still cooperate based on common interests”.

Relatively speaking, Japan and Australia have a firm attitude, and the relationship between China and the two countries has also been experiencing setbacks. Even so, it is impossible for the two countries to completely abandon cooperation with China. China brings great opportunities for the economic and social development of the two countries. A complete slide towards confrontation will not only not help economic recovery and growth, but also pose a threat to regional peace and stability.

*The basis of bilateral cooperation varies

Before the talks, the four countries had carried out bilateral cooperation for many years, but the depth and latest progress of these cooperation were very different.

On the whole, the cooperation between Japan and Australia in the Indian Pacific region is the most mature and develops most smoothly. Over the past decade, the leaders of Japan and Australia have exchanged visits very frequently, and the mechanism of regular meetings between various departments is also relatively sound. The two countries not only signed the reciprocal access agreement and established a “quasi alliance” relationship, but also joined the US Japan India Australia quadrilateral cooperation mechanism. On this basis, the two countries signed a series of defense cooperation agreements and maintained close coordination and cooperation in maritime security, counter-terrorism, regional hotspot issues and other aspects.

However, although both Australia and New Zealand belong to the Western camp and Oceanian countries, bilateral cooperation has always focused on South Pacific Affairs; The continuous discord between Japan and South Korea is likely to become the weakest link in the cooperation among the four countries; Although there is cooperation between Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Australia, the bilateral relations are far from reaching the height of Japan and Australia.

From the perspective of the basis of bilateral cooperation, there are many obstacles to promoting cooperation among the four countries. There are still many difficulties in how to coordinate the differences between all parties, make up for the shortcomings of cooperation, and establish a cooperation mechanism acceptable to all parties.

*There is closeness and estrangement with the United States

The attitude of the United States towards the four countries’ meeting and cooperation on the same stage is thought-provoking. Although the United States urgently needs the Asia Pacific allies to cooperate independently, share strategic pressure and strengthen containment, Biden has not yet expressed his position on the cooperation among the four countries. Without the cooperation of the four countries supported by the United States, it is difficult to make substantive progress.

In addition, the four countries also have different positions in the strategic layout of the United States. The US Japan alliance is regarded as “the cornerstone of the US Asia Pacific security policy and global strategy” after the cold war, while the US Australia alliance is known as “the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Indian Pacific region”. The United States has always had strong expectations for Japan and Australia to share more responsibilities. While South Korea is only an “outpost” of the United States in Northeast Asia, the role of New Zealand is limited to the South Pacific region.

It is foreseeable that the alliance between the United States and Japan and Australia will be further deepened, and Japan and Australia will do their best to support their global strategy. If the United States cannot “balance the water”, South Korea and New Zealand will not only find it difficult to meet their own interests, but also worry about joining the regional strategy led by Japan and Australia.

It can be seen that it is not easy for the United States to make up for the differences among the Asia Pacific allies and enhance the cohesion of the Asia Pacific Alliance.

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