The U.S.-Japan-ROK Strategic Triangle and Maritime Security: Building Capacity in Northeast Asia and in the Broader Indo-Pacific Region

Last updated March 11, 2017

This project focuses on the prospects for improving and expanding U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea (ROK) trilateral cooperation by promoting and building upon greater opportunities for maritime collaboration between and among these three critical allies. While improving U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation has been viewed by Washington as a strategic priority for a number of years now, it has proved difficult to establish and even more difficult to sustain. Indeed, far too often in the past, historical animosities, competing territorial claims, differences over how best to manage a rising China, and the combined impact of these factors on domestic politics, among other issues, have stood in the way of closer Japanese-ROK relations, despite the importance of such improvements to the security of both nations. As a result, American-brokered efforts to promote trilateral security coordination among Japan, the ROK, and the United States have been on-again, off-again affairs, without much lasting effect. Over the past year, however, there have been growing indications that the tide may be turning with regard to U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateralism, especially in the maritime security arena, all of which could have a considerable effect on Asian security more generally. Indeed, even in the midst of the latest spate of perceived snubs and strained relations involving Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the navies of Japan, the ROK, and the United States completed a wide-ranging series of naval drills off the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula in October 2013, underscoring the drills’ importance to regional stability and signaling their intent to repeat them on an annual basis. Just one month later, moreover, Japan and the ROK, with support from the United States, chose to confirm their opposition to China’s unilateral declaration of an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea by conducting a joint search-and-rescue (SAR) exercise explicitly within that area, deploying destroyers and helicopters without submitting flight plans to Beijing. More recently, President Obama hosted a trilateral summit with Prime Minister Abe and President Park on the margins of the March 2014 Nuclear Security Summit held in The Hague, which led shortly thereafter to a defense trilateral at the Pentagon and to trilateral exchanges on North Korean policy at the State Department.

For many reasons, further trilateral progress in the maritime realm may be easier to achieve than in other sectors, while also providing a springboard to broader trilateral and multilateral efforts in the future. First, given ongoing South Korean sensitivities over the potential deployment of Japanese military forces on (or close to) ROK territory, joint naval training and exercises conducted well off-shore, out of the public eye, are much less likely to trigger any serious South Korean opposition. Second, trilateral maritime activities have emerged as near-ideal tools for developing common skills in a number of mission areas – such as ocean surveillance, sea-lane protection, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) from the sea, as well as SAR by naval and coast guard units – that remain top priorities for Japan, the ROK, and the United States, given the largely maritime nature of the Northeast Asian security environment and the need to safeguard seaborne trade passing through its waters. Third, in addition to cooperating at sea in and around Northeast Asia, the prospects that Japan, the ROK, and the United States can (and will) extend joint naval activities farther afield into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean are also increasing, opening the door for these three countries to work together, bilaterally and trilaterally, on building maritime capacity and partnerships throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Fourth, and finally, over time, maritime collaboration along these lines could pave the way to wider-ranging multilateral collaboration on key naval tasks (such as counter-piracy and maritime safety) and to broader trilateral cooperation. Eventually, such cooperation could also become a critical component of a larger regional security architecture better able to cope with the full range of traditional and non-traditional risks and challenges to stability that are likely to come to the fore in this strategically vital region in the years ahead.

The primary goals of the project are 1) to develop a deeper understanding of the incentives for and potential roadblocks to U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation overall; 2) to highlight more precisely how maritime collaboration in Northeast Asia and in the wider Indo-Pacific region can be an ideal route to broader trilateral cooperation; 3) to assess how trilateral maritime collaboration can provide both an effective hedge against Chinese military pressure at sea and a potentially attractive avenue for military cooperation with China, be it on a bilateral, trilateral, wider “mini-lateral,” or more truly multilateral basis; 4) to identify and prioritize specific policy options and courses of action in the realm of cooperative maritime security that would be directly useful to (and implementable by) key decision makers in Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul; 5) to produce at the same time a much-needed analysis of how maritime cooperation and capacity building at the trilateral level can open the door to broader collaboration in other important security sectors; 6) to build, through workshops, a lasting network of trilateral expertise in all three countries; and 7) to contribute in a substantial way to the policy-minded literature on trilateralism.