Recently concluded talks between South Korean and American defence chiefs reflect US efforts to extend the range of discussion beyond the North Korean threat to an assertive China, some analysts have said.
The South Korea-US Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) on Monday also provided a first glimpse into how an accord struck in August between the United States, Japan and South Korea at their summit at Camp David was shaping up in terms of a security partnership against Beijing, they said.
The annual SCM meeting focuses on deterring North Korea but its agenda had been expected to widen following the three-way summit that stipulated a security partnership binding Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, said Kim Joon-hyung, former head of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
“This [year’s] SCM meeting shows further US efforts to make the three-way security cooperation a diplomatic fait accompli, which would potentially be aimed not only to deter the North but also to curb China,” Kim said.
An 18-clause joint communique issued by South Korean Defence Minister Shin Won-sik and US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin after the 55th SCM in Seoul stated both sides shared a common understanding that US-South Korea security cooperation played a “critical role in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
“The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, lawful unimpeded commerce, and respect for international law including freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful use of the seas, including the South China Sea and beyond,” the document stated.
Austin and Shin also “acknowledged the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”, as reflected in an April joint statement issued at a summit between US President Joe Biden and South Korean leader Yoon Suk-yeol in Washington, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the two nations’ alliance, which was established in 1953 several months after the armistice to cease hostilities in the Korean war.
Analysts have also pointed to the August tripartite summit, where the three countries called out China’s “dangerous and aggressive behaviour supporting unlawful maritime claims” in the South China Sea, saying their leaders “strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the waters of the Indo-Pacific”.
The three leaders had reaffirmed the importance of “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of security and prosperity in the international community”.
On Sunday, at a separate talk ahead of SCM, Austin, Shin and Japan’s Defence Minister Minoru Kihara – who attended virtually – agreed to conduct unprecedented multi-year trilateral military drills from January of next year and share warning alerts against North Korean missiles in real time between them.
The trio got together for a first-ever, stand-alone trilateral meeting instead of discussing on the sidelines of multilateral events such as previously at the Shangri-La Dialogue and the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus).
The Camp David accord notably also said the three countries commit to “raise our shared ambition to a new horizon, across domains and across the Indo-Pacific and beyond”.
“Our shared values will be our guide and a free and open Indo-Pacific,” they said, adding they will also launch an annual Trilateral Indo-Pacific Dialogue to coordinate the implementation of their Indo-Pacific approaches and to continually identify new areas for common action.
Kim from the Korea National Diplomatic Academy noted: “The three countries want to bring Asean into their efforts to contain a presumably aggressive China. For this purpose, South Korea is seeking to do door-knocking sales to appeal to Asean, but Asean is hardly likely to buy it.”
Threat from the North
Park Won-gon, a political-science professor at Ewha Womans University, however, said that the three-way military drills, including a first-ever joint air drill last month near the Korean peninsula, were all clearly designed to deter the North, not China. Japan’s military surveillance prowess was advantageous for South Korea in these drills, Park added.
“The United States has made it no secret to form an integrated defence line comprising not only the three countries but Nato as well to cope with China. However, both South Korea and Japan are reluctant to commit to military moves when it comes to China,” he said.
In a study released last week by the Atlantic Council think tank, which consulted more than 100 experts, it was reported that recent changes in North Korean and Chinese capabilities and intentions are likely to “dramatically” increase the risk that US and South Korean deterrence could fail within the next decade. The group has called for major steps to strengthen their deterrence.
Although an all-out nuclear attack was the least likely scenario, Pyongyang could feel emboldened to escalate with more limited military actions, including possible nuclear strikes, according to the study.
“The region is concerned about the focus of the United States,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“We’re involved in two wars,” Glaser said. “And then a second layer of concern … is our presidential election next year and whether this emphasis on the Indo-Pacific and an emphasis on cooperating with allies, building these coalitions, whether that’s really going to be sustained.”
Defence Minister Shin said at the same briefing on Monday that the US-South Korea alliance was the “most powerful in history and in the world” despite conflicts happening elsewhere.
He noted that recent live-fire drills by the allies were the largest in history and that boosting joint exercises would ensure that North Korea could be punished “immediately and powerfully” if it were to launch an attack.
Yang Moo-jin, a political-science professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said the possibility of South Korea’s involvement in a conflict over Taiwan was a “sensitive” subject and Seoul had been shying away from such narratives.
“The Yoon administration abides by the widely accepted principle that there must be no use of force to change the status quo and in accordance with that principle, it backs the US policy to contain China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea and muscle flexing against Taiwan,” he said.
The three-way security cooperation including South Korea, the US and Japan was primarily aimed at deterring North Korea rather than China, and the South desperately needed the trilateral cooperation in detecting and warning about missiles fired by the North, according to Yang.
“The three-way security cooperation may be seen as a threat by its neighbours, especially China. But the expanded security cooperation including Japan is aimed to push China indirectly to play a constructive role in restraining North Korea,” he said.
Kim Joon-hyung said for China and Russia, the emergence of a countervailing three-way security partnership binding them and North Korea against the US-South Korea-Japan cooperation could result in the emergence of a “new Cold War” in the region.
“China’s utmost concern is economic recovery. China is not eager to improve ties with the South but it is not intent on making it worse,” he said, adding that President Xi Jinping was unlikely to visit Seoul any time soon.
“Bilateral relations – the North and China, the North and Russia, and China and Russia – will strengthen but we will hardly see their three-way meeting matching the Camp David summit in the foreseeable future.”