GP Insights

GP Insights # 487, 21 March 2021

Japan and South Korea: The US returns to East Asia
Avishka Ashok

What happened?
On 16 March, the US Defence Secretary (Lloyd Austin), and US Secretary of State (Antony Blinken), joined their Japanese counterparts for the two-plus-two security conference in Tokyo. They discussed China's aggression and the challenges to human rights in the region. The joint statement released after the meeting revealed the two countries concern over "unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea and unilateral action that seeks to change the status quo" of the Senkaku islands.

On 18 March, the US delegation made an official visit to South Korea where they reconfirmed the US' allegiance to defend Seoul against North Korean and Chinese threats. Lloyd Austin stated, "Given the unprecedented challenges posed by both the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and China, the US-ROK alliance has never been more important." The two countries also agreed to cooperate on the denuclearization of the peninsula. 

What is the background?
First, the change in the US approach towards East Asia. The latest visit to Japan is the first-ever cabinet-level foreign visit made by the Biden Administration after the change in leadership in America. Antony Blinken also reiterated the importance of expanding relations with Japan by stating, "it is no accident that we chose Japan for the first Cabinet-level overseas travel." The US did not make an official visit to South Korea since 2016, after which there a lack of political activity during the Trump period. The visit to East Asia reveals the new administration's interest in the Indo-Pacific.  

Second, a greater push to contain China. During the meeting, the US made numerous statements that expressed the US sentiment towards China. Blinked said, "We will push back if necessary, when China uses coercion or aggression to get its way." He also expressed discontent and concern regarding China's policies in Xinjiang, illegal actions in the South China Sea and emphasized the importance of peace and stability. 

Third, addressing the North Korean threat. During the one-day visit to South Korea, the US stressed the necessity of denuclearization to maintain peace in the region. The US diplomats said that the US and its allies would "strategize together on how to confront shared threats such as North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs." The statements were made soon after Kim Yo-jong, North Korean Leader's sister, threatened the US to refrain from hostile behaviour towards North Korea to ensure a peaceful tenure. 

What does it mean?
The visits to Japan and South Korea signify the importance of the Indo-Pacific in American foreign policy. The Biden administration seems to be pursuing a more cautious approach towards North Korea while taking a harsh stance on China. The US involvement in dealing with denuclearization and China's rising aggression and influence will continue during the Biden era. 

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