A U.S.-led Alliance In Northeast Asia Will Harm Everyone, But China Can Stop It

The renewed U.S.-led trilateral alliance has attracted tremendous attention internationally. A clear comprehension of the problems faced by all three parties and their underlying motivations to strengthen the alliance will enable all regional stakeholders to preserve peace and stability in Northeast Asia, preventing undue collision among stakeholders.

The U.S. has been the most important driving force in the strengthening of the trilateral alliance, and the recent Japan-South Korea rapprochement, affected by a series of interrelated events, has provided President Biden the opportunity to galvanize the alliance.

  1. Should Biden wish to successfully secure a mandate for a second term, then he has to prevent the erosion of his voter base by projecting an image of strong leadership and subduing his rival Donald Trump by pursuing a stronger anti-China stance.
  2. Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida is trying to appeal to voters by rekindling their aspiration to transform Japan into a global military power of similar stature to its position before World War II. Kishida has used the Ukraine conflict to justify the removal of Japan’s military budget cap of 1% of GDP.
  3. External factors have had three further impacts, namely, a) geopolitical polarization resulting from the Russia-Ukraine conflict has prompted the U.S. to promote a so-called rules-based international order, which is a scheme to contain China; b) the DPRK’s heightened threats have given a pretext for the U.S.-led trilateral alliance, leading South Korea and Japan to overcome their historical antagonism; c) Taiwan’s reinvigorated push for independence is supported by the U.S. and has heightened tension. Such tension is perceived as a potential threat to peace and stability by South Korea and Japan.

In this light, strengthening the trilateral alliance is a strategy developed by the U.S. to deal with new dynamics in the region and is supported by Japan and South Korea in support of their own national interests. However, this strategy is both counterproductive and the alliance is vulnerable.

For one thing, U.S. propensity to divide countries based upon a so-called rules-based order will incite a negative response from countries including Vietnam, the Philippines and Cambodia by forcing them to take sides and align with U.S.’ containment policy, which they neither fully share nor endorse. Taking sides with the U.S. and supporting the containment policy would entail significant economic costs for them, and impede their economic development. The U.S.’s effort to divide countries is also the cause of worsening China-Japan and China-South Korea relations, and has further encouraged Japan to remilitarize.

For another, the trilateral alliance is fundamentally vulnerable because the three members share different strategic objectives. Unlike the U.S., which pursues a China containment policy, South Korea aims to establish permanent peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, and taking sides with the U.S. would not help to achieve this. Should South Korea actively participate in the U.S.-led China containment policy, it would incur substantial economic costs. Moreover, Yoon’s mandate for hawkish policies towards China has already taken a serious blow after his party’s sizable defeat in the recent parliamentary elections, thus yielding a majority to the opposition party which advocates an amicable relationship with China and the DPRK. Further, South Korea, which holds a historical grievance against Japan, is unlikely to support Japanese ambitions to remilitarize. These factors make South Korea a weak link in the alliance.

Therefore, in order to promote regional peace, stability and prosperity more effectively, all regional stakeholders, including the U.S., South Korea, Japan and China should implement measures to reduce tension and enhance cooperation, rather than add more fuel to the fire.

The U.S. should move away from its China containment policy and instead seek mutually beneficial cooperation.

Japan needs to constrain its attempt to remilitarize. Should Japan attempt to remilitarize, it would instigate an acute arms race between Russia, China and South Korea in Northeast Asia, and increase instability in the region.

Seoul will have a better chance of denuclearizing the DPRK and achieving peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula by distancing itself from the trilateral alliance and instead working closely with China. Consequently, South Korea will also secure economic benefits from trade with China and will be able to suppress Japan’s military revival by reducing tension in Northeast Asia.

China has two key areas of leverage which it may utilize to prevent the trilateral alliance from deepening.

First, the containment policy pursued by the trilateral alliance not only impedes China’s strategic interests, but also hinders those of the alliance’s members. As China is a global leader in world trade, its economic leverage is a powerful impetus to effectively counter the U.S.-led trilateral containment policy. This is underscored by the fact that over 20% of South Korea and Japan’s trade is dependent on China as of 2022.

Second, North Korea’s heavy dependence on China makes Beijing’s role essential in promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea and Japan have a shared aspiration to accomplish the DPRK’s denuclearization and end its hostility. Should Japan and South Korea bolster their support for the U.S.’s efforts to contain China, their aspirations will suffer.

China’s economic model has worldwide appeal for emerging countries as a result of its extraordinary economic modernization, resulting from market-oriented reform and integration into the world economy. Between 2008 and 2021, China lifted 800 million citizens out of poverty and its per-capita GDP rose by 263%, which accounted for 40% of the increase in global per-capita income. Since the Belt and Road Initiative was announced in 2013, China has invested over $1 trillion in infrastructure in more than 140 countries.

China needs to make the most of its economic success by capitalizing on its strategic leverage, and President Xi’s meeting with U.S. businessmen in March is a significant step in the right direction.

[Photo by the White House, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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