Opinion| US alliances in East Asia to confront the Chinese dragon

Marwa El- Shinawy
8 Min Read

While the whole world focuses on the Ukrainian war, the United States continues to shape the map of its new alliances. The United States renewed its firm commitment to defend South Korea against external threats during a meeting between US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and her South Korean counterpart Cho Hyun-dong in Washington, DC last Wednesday. Sherman and Cho condemned North Korea’s dangerous and provocative behaviour, calling on Pyongyang to return to diplomacy. Sherman and Cho also agreed on the importance of continued support for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s unjustified military intervention. More importantly, during their meeting, the two officials emphasized the regional and global influence of the 70-year-old Washington-Seoul bilateral alliance, stressing the importance of trilateral cooperation with Tokyo.

Based on this, it can be said that there may be serious steps to form a new tripartite alliance that includes the US, Japan, and South Korea. Indeed, the outlines of the John Biden administration’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific have begun to emerge. This is where Biden began to prioritize reforming US alliance relations in the Asia-Pacific region and then moved to bring US allies together in a unified approach. There is no doubt that the United States seeks to build more small regional alliances (quadruple or tripartite) to balance China’s military power, support the “international order based on rules”, and resume negotiations for North Korea’s denuclearization.

It is no secret that the United States has been pursuing the strategy of small alliances for quite some time to maintain its global standing. This came as a result of the apparent weakness of American power due to Washington’s involvement in the wars of terrorism in the Middle East. This is in addition to its weak dominance over NATO, in light of its members’ refusal to engage in American adventures outside the scope of its work on the European continent. Therefore, there was an increasing American tendency to form regional alliances (quadrilateral or tripartite) made up of like-minded countries and tendencies in cases of necessity and on specific issues. This is provided that the United States plays a leading role in these small alliances, dominating its field of activity, the course of its movements, the quality of its goals, and the limits of its competence. Examples of such alliances are the Quad (United States, India, Japan, and Australia) and AUKUS (United States, Australia, and Britain).

Many motives make this tripartite alliance necessary for the United States at this time. The most important of these motives is the growing Chinese threat to Washington, especially after CIA Director William Prins described China as “the biggest geopolitical challenge facing the United States today.” Add to this the increasing Russian-Chinese maneuvers in Northeast Asia, in addition to North Korea’s missile tests. All of this is certainly a good threat to the three countries. Moreover, US officials have repeatedly emphasized the importance of trilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan, and South Korea. This is because this cooperation is a key part of the Biden administration’s broader strategy to confront China. Washington’s North Korea policy also depends in part on the three countries lining up together.

So far, it seems that the biggest challenge that the Biden administration may face in establishing such an alliance is the complexities of the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul. In fact, Japan and South Korea are close neighbors, and both are major US allies in East Asia. However, the relationship between the two states had deteriorated greatly in recent years, due to several disputes, including territorial claims over the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo or Takeshima), visits by Japanese prime ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine, and conflicting views on the Empire of Japan’s treatment of the colony of Korea. This is certainly in addition to Japan’s refusal to negotiate Korea’s demands for an apology or compensation for the mistreatment of “comfort women” during World War II. Furthermore, the Diplomatic Blue Book issued by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2018 removed the phrase from the previous year referring to the Republic of Korea as “Japan’s most important neighbor that shares strategic interests with Japan.” Certainly, these tensions may complicate US efforts to consolidate a common front against Chinese and North Korean threats in the region. Nonetheless, North Korea’s aggressive actions and lack of commitment to denuclearization in recent years may prompt South Korea and Japan to refocus on establishing a pragmatic relationship based on mutual strategic interests.

Certainly, the new American alliances are closely linked to the change in the American vision of the sources of threat. At the geographical level, and after years of great American involvement in the affairs of the Middle East, the American president is dedicating an American shift towards Asia, a shift whose beginning can be dated from the era of former President Barack Obama. After years of placing terrorist threats at the top of the security threats to the United States, following the events of September 11, the administration of US President Joe Biden considers China the main actor capable of threatening the United States and the international order that it dominates. This is in light of the clear rise of convictions in the “Chinese threat” theory at the popular, partisan, and governmental levels in the United States. This is in parallel with a shift in the issues of American concern, as there are many issues intertwined with the Chinese challenge that the Biden administration is interested in.

Undoubtedly, day after day more features of the new world alliances become clear. So far, we find the United States, Japan, and South Korea on one side. On the other hand, you will find Russia, China, and Iran. We may also be able to predict the reactions of some countries. For example, there is a great possibility that North Korea and India will join Russia and China. Nevertheless, predicting what the coming days will bring seems like a daunting task at such a difficult and chaotic time.

Dr. Marwa El-Shinawy: Assistant Prof. at International American University for Specialized Studies (IAUS)

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