The Biden-Yoon Summit: Where Does Japan Figure?


JFSS Senior Research Fellow / Head of the Stockholm Centre for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs at the Institute for Security and Development Policy Dr. Jagannath Panda

Japan and South Korea are the linchpins of the US security and diplomatic policy in the Indo-Pacific. However, their historically fraught relations have perpetually frustrated the US efforts. After the ties reached a new low in 2019 – the worst in recent years since normalization in 1965 – as Japan removed the Republic of Korea (ROK) from a whitelist of preferred trading partners, and in response, the ROK contemplated pulling the plug on the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), the relations continued to decline, with even Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida calling them as being “in a severe condition.” Despite the optimism with Yoon Suk-yeol's election win this year, the relations are still in a state of quandary, posing a potential security nightmare for the United States that is struggling to maintain its dominance in the region against a belligerently ascendant China. 

Thus, the US President Joe Biden's first official trip to South Korea and Japan (May 20-24) assumes greater significance for the security architecture in East Asia, particularly in the context of repairing of ties between the two Asian economies, although there was no overt mention. How far would Biden's trip to Asia alter the dynamics of the Japan-ROK bilateral? Will Yoon's intent to normalize relations with Japan find resonance in the long term, keeping the domestic politics at bay? Will Japan be able to override its reservations against South Korea owing to the failed reconciliation efforts during the Moon-Abe era? 

ROK's Indo-Pacific Embrace: A Sign of the Times?

That the US president chose Seoul as the first stop would be reassuring for the newly inaugurated ROK President Yoon, who faces a tough domestic situation with low public ratings and not enough support in the opposition-dominated National Assembly. Therefore, it is promising that soon after the inauguration Yoon has chosen to reiterate his commitment to change the ROK's (thus far) largely effective diplomatic trajectory by siding with the United States: In a strategic first, the ROK during the Yoon-Biden summit aligned with the US Indo-Pacific strategy by agreeing to formalize its membership in the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) before its launch in Tokyo.  

The IPEF – which includes four pillars of trade, supply chains, clean energy and infrastructure, and effective tax and anti-corruption systems – would be important for South Korea not only for diversifying its heavily China-reliant economy, including supply chains, but especially for its cutting-edge semi-conductor industry that is facing tough completion from Japan and Taiwan. At a time when the Ukraine war has severely impacted the global economy, this is a timely move; that South Korea is already part of the China-supported Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will hopefully complement its distressed economy. 

Though there has been criticism that the US-led economic framework may not be as beneficial to the ROK as is being portrayed, primarily because it is not a standard free trade agreement, or that the risks outweigh the cost of triggering China (though some quarters have also termed it as a “low risk” endeavor). China is understandably unhappy and has warned South Korea of the consequences of decoupling; in response, South Korea has maintained that the relationship between the super powers is not a “zero-sum game for Korea.” Even as the ROK has emphasized on not excluding China, the US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel has categorically denied the possibility of China either volunteering to join or being invited to do so by stating that it does not “play by the [others'] rules.”  

The Japan Tangle: A New Way Forward or Empty Rhetoric?

The US-ROK summit not only committed to a global comprehensive strategic alliance, which today tracks affairs related to the Korean peninsula and beyond, thus solidifying Yoon's ambitions for the ROK as a “global pivotal state.” But for that to be realized, South Korea needs Japan, a crucial ally of the US and an anchor for the Indo-Pacific architecture, in its corner. 

Moreover, Japan's long-standing soft-power diplomacy in Southeast Asia (it is the largest official development assistance provider in Asia) would benefit South Korea immensely to enhance its outreach with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It would be a step in the right direction toward fulfilling its commitment to increase cooperation with the region, a pivotal part of its existing “New Southern Policy Plus” and recently outlined in the ROK-US joint statement. 

The ROK-US-Japan trilateral would be important to face common economic and energy security threats, as highlighted in the ROK-US joint statement in May. The three could also coalesce through the economic security dialogue that Yoon and Biden have agreed to launch for bilateral purposes, as it is aligned with Kishida's “new capitalism” policy approach, of which economic security is a mainstay. Prior to the summit, amid the uncertain regional and global geopolitics, the Japanese Diet enacted a landmark economic security bill on May 11 that aims to strengthen supply chains and facilitate the development of cutting-edge technologies. The trilateral also has the potential to collaborate on high-tech semiconductors, a common area of expertise for the two Asian neighbors. 

On the destabilizing threat from North Korea, the Biden-Yoon summit reiterated extended deterrence against North Korea's nuclear and missile threat, ultimately agreeing to expand their joint military exercises, previously cut back under Moon, in an effort to accelerate the complete denuclearization of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), a “common goal.” 

Tokyo is highly concerned over North Korea's behavior as well, especially after a recently launched inter-continental ballistic missile reportedly landed in the Sea of Japan within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Japan needs ROK for a concerted takedown of the common security threats. Because of Yoon's more hawkish approach (in the limited time between election pledges and inauguration) to the DPRK, a contrast to Moon's reconciliatory policy, Japan has reason to hope that the South Korean leader would be more willing to take steps that may antagonize both its northern neighbor and China. 

Bilateral relations between Japan and North Korea are at an impasse; so far Tokyo has only been able to use its relationship with the US to exert influence on the situation, but if South Korea becomes more active, it will suit Japan. Tokyo will then have more avenues, potentially through the ROK-US-Japan trilateral, to push for denuclearization. 

On Taiwan, the joint statement treads along the familiar lines of support for peace and security. In contrast, Japan has been extending unprecedented backing to Taiwan of late, which has enraged China. Therefore, Biden's recent voicing of unequivocal support to aid Taiwan militarily in the event of escalation from China comes as a relief, even though there is no change in official policy for either Japan or the US. For now, Yoon, however, would be content to not ruffle any more feathers, but in the near future will likely toe the US line. 

Importantly, the summit has provided President Yoon with an opportunity to showcase South Korea as responsible actor that could undertake global responsibilities. Post his embrace of the Indo-Pacific framework, the next step would be to propel South Korea into participating in multilateral forums like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the US). Biden has already highlighted his support to Yoon for formulating ROK's own Indo-Pacific strategy. This policy change means that South Korea will shift its engagement with the region from “strategic ambiguity” to an outlook that will be more in line with the US and, in effect, Japan's vision of the Indo-Pacific, a precursor to US version.

The summit has also revealed that President Biden is willing to play mediator between Seoul and Tokyo, potentially using his East Asia tour to begin this process. Biden in his post-summit press conference talked about the need for ROK and Japan to sidestep differences and show solidarity to propel the democratic, inclusive rules-based global order in the face of rising authoritarianism from Russia and China, whose “no-limits” convergence in recent times has created a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the democratic and autocratic states. Particularly, he also talked about resolving the “trade barriers” between Japan and ROK. 

Yoon has already stated his intention to build a future-oriented relationship with Japan, primarily, because he does not want the perpetual bilateral conflict to become the “Achilles' heel” for the trilateral cooperation and the US-ROK bilateral. Kishida, who as foreign minister was part of the previous Abe government's rapprochement process, has similar hopes for improving the ties between the neighbors but would be cautious because of his past experience. 

Moreover, Japan remains deeply suspicious of South Korean tactics, especially in light of the discovery of an ROK research vessel within Japan's EEZ near the disputed Takeshima Islands (called Dokdo in South Korea) earlier in May. The incident coincided with the Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi's ROK visit to attend Yoon's inauguration as president – Hayashi attended as a special envoy of Kishida's, who was reportedly “humiliated and disheartened” by the incident. 

Thus, even as Japan has welcomed South Korea's commitment to the US-Japan-ROK trilateral to fight common threats, Japan will be carefully assessing the validity of Yoon's pledges to restore relations – as these are still early days and the rhetoric of amicable, future-oriented relations between the two historically antagonistic neighbors is not new. However, time is ripe for reconciliation.