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The Three Musketeers of the Indo-Pacific

What is happening?

Three important players in the Indo-Pacific region, South Korea (R.O.K.), Japan, and the United States (U.S.), plan to conduct annual top-level trilateral meetings and joint military drills. They also aim to strengthen their information sharing, cyber cooperation, and cooperation in the field of economic security. Last Friday, President Yoon Suk Yeol and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met with U.S. President Joe Biden at Camp David for the first ever stand-alone summit between the leaders of these three countries. They agreed to deepen military and economic ties and jointly condemned China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. This trilateral partnership resumed last year after nearly five years of hiatus. As declared in the joint statement from November, the three countries want to pursue a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific, that is inclusive, resilient, and secure”. One of the critical drivers that unites these ‘three musketeers’ behind these noble ideals is the deepening partnership of another three significant actors, specifically North Korea, China, and Russia.


What is the broader picture?

Given its nuclear arsenal, frequent ballistic missile tests, and offensive rhetoric, North Korea is currently the most direct security challenge in the Indo-Pacific region. However, over the years, China has also become a source of security concerns not just in the Indo-Pacific but among like-minded democracies worldwide. It has been called a systemic rival by the European Union, a challenge to the alliance’s interests, security and values by NATO, and  an unprecedented strategic challenge to the international order by Japan. The ‘no-limits friendship’ between China and Russia declared last February adds a third country to the mix. Russia’s and China’s attendance at North Korea’s celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice by the end of July served as a clear manifestation of closer ties between the three.  


Why it matters?

Closer cooperation between the R.O.K., Japan, and the U.S. appears to be a logical step to counterbalance the other three Indo-Pacific actors, but there is still a long way to go. After World War II, the US established a hub and spokes system in the security structure of the Indo-Pacific. Compared to multilateralism in European security alliances, a vast majority of what is nowadays known as Indo-Pacific was predominantly defined by bilateral partnerships in which the U.S. played a dominant role as the hub, while other countries, including the R.O.K. and Japan, became spokes. U.S. bilateral relations with both stand on a solid foundation but the current challenges require a more multilateral approach, which also entails closer cooperation between the spokes.

That is why even Japan and the R.O.K. are seeking to find common ground, even though the legacy of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea (1910-1945) continues to influence their bilateral ties. In March, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hosted President Yoon Suk Yeol who visited Japan upon Tokyo’s invitation to rebuild relations between the two countries. It was the first such visit in 12 years. Prior to the meeting, Seoul came up with a plan to solve a dispute regarding wartime forced labor by compensating Korean victims without a direct involvement of the Japanese side. The dispute occurred in 2018 when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to compensate victims of wartime forced labor. After the visit, Prime Minister Kishida invited President Yoon to the May G7 summit in Hiroshima. In July, both leaders attended the NATO summit in Vilnius, where they held their sixth Korea-Japan summit. Both countries have also progressed in warming up their economic ties, for example, by deciding to put each other back on their respective trade whitelists.

Improving relations between the R.O.K. and Japan complement their cooperation with the U.S. The three countries already agreed to work on the North Korean missile and nuclear threat, conduct joint trilateral exercises, tackle economic security challenges including economic coercion, and more. At the same time, they must not lose sight of their internal challenges such as colonial-wartime history issues or different threat perceptions based on their geographical proximity, which is also one of the factors projected into varying approaches towards China. The greatest challenge is thus to maintain the trilateral cooperation last in the long term. But if they succeed, will there be someone else to join them? After all, the Three Musketeers were also four in the end.