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Trilateral missile defence system a step towards Asian Nato

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Picture: Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Taken on March 8, 2016 United States Secretary of Defence Lloyd J Austin III. Austin has met with his counterpart, Republic of Korea Minister of National Defence Shin Wonsik, in Seoul on November 12, 2023. The Biden Administration extols the Camp David Agreement as a qualitative leap forward in the US, Japan, and South Korea military co-operation, the writers say.

By Jeffrey Wagner and Dae-Han Song

The United States, Japan, and South Korea will fully operationalise a missile warning system “by the end of December“. While justified as a means to counter North Korea’s missile launches, more worrisome, it escalates tensions in the region with China through the “Nato-ification” of all three countries, agreed upon in the “Spirit of Camp David” agreement.

The agreement was hailed as a “new era of trilateral partnership” during the August 18 press conference following a meeting between the heads of state of all three countries. Western media echoed the sentiment, calling it “historic” and “unprecedented”. China, listed in the agreement as a regional concern, accused the United States of creating a “mini Nato in Asia”.

In response, United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan emphatically stated that the trilateral alliance is “nothing new” and certainly “not a new Nato for the Pacific”. Yet despite such dismissals, this meeting between the US and its strongest allies in the region lays the foundations for Nato-level military co-operation — a common threat, interoperability, and security co-ordination — that threatens China and escalates tensions in the region.

‘Collective interests and security’

While the United States has had bilateral agreements under the San Francisco System with South Korea and Japan for decades, the August 18 Camp David meeting institutionalised trilateral co-operation among the three nations, changing the scope and nature of their relations from the hub-and-spoke bilateral alliances to trilateral annual summits (covering finance, commerce, industry, foreign policy, and defence) and joint military exercises. As Victor Cha of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) states: “This [unprecedented] institutionalisation of the trilateral relationship … transforms these alliances into something quite new.”

This was a historical breakthrough for the United States, which first pursued a Nato-level alliance built around Japan in the 1950s. Yet, unresolved grievances around Japan’s colonialism (enabled by the US decision to prioritise its security interests over rectifying Japan’s war crimes and colonialism), and the different security interests between South Korea and Japan forced it to settle for bilateral agreements with governments it installed and propped up.

Nonetheless, as noted in Foreign Policy magazine, this US “military pre-eminence in the Pacific gave Washington the luxury of not needing a collective security agreement”. Today, as the US “has lost its preponderance of military power in the maritime domain … [the US and its allies face a] threat comparable to what Nato confronted in Europe during the Cold War”.

The conservative, pro-US Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s 2023 decision to normalise relations with Japan (casting aside a South Korean Supreme Court ruling against Japanese companies for the wartime conscription of Koreans) paved the way towards establishing the trilateral alliance that the US had sought for the past 70 years.

While the Spirit of Camp David Agreement is not yet a full-fledged mini Asian-Nato, combining two of the United States’ closest allies in the region into military co-operation with each other is a step towards it. The agreement contains the seeds of a Nato-level trilateral alliance based on mutual self-defence. More specifically, it calls for consultation and co-ordinated responses “to regional challenges, provocations, and threats that affect our collective interests and security”.

As Kurt M Campbell, Biden’s Asia strategy architect, has stated: a “fundamental, foundational understanding” of the Spirit of Camp David statement is that “a challenge to the security of any one of the countries affects the security of all of them”.

‘Integrated deterrence’

One of Nato’s strengths, which enhances and expands US power projection in the region, is the synergy achieved by greater interoperability (i.e., the ability to effectively “achieve tactical, operational and strategic objectives”) between member countries. All of these are being built up and pursued through the trilateral security co-operation agreement.

This agreement lays the groundwork for trilateral interoperability to achieve “integrated deterrence” against China. This integrated deterrence is key in the US containment of China. It allows the United States to carry out provocations (e.g., former US House Speaker’s Nancy Pelosi August 2022 visit with Taiwan’s president) while limiting China’s response options.

A key component of integrated deterrence is joint military co-operation and co-ordination through a common operational picture. In other words, all parties need to be looking at the same operational picture informing their operational decisions.

The recent normalisation of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) by the Yoon Administration lays the foundation for this. Previously, under the 2014 trilateral information sharing agreement, South Korean and Japanese intelligence would be shared between each other through the United States and would be limited to threats from North Korea. GSOMIA, first signed in 2016, and reinstated by Yoon (after former President Moon allowed it to expire in 2019), allows comprehensive intelligence sharing between South Korea and Japan directly, including “threats from China and Russia”.

On August 29, the United States, South Korea, and Japan held joint ballistic missile defence drills to “detect and track a computer-simulated ballistic missile target, and share related information”. The system is expected to be fully operationalised by the end of December 2023. While ostensibly against North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles, given the scope of GSOMIA, this missile defence system can just as well be applied to China.

At a time when regional power is maintained through an “extended deterrence” to determine the outcome without a bullet even fired against an adversary, the United States’ missile defence system allows it to project its power in the region by neutralising China’s anti-access and area-denial capabilities. Furthermore, it threatens to neutralise China’s ability to respond to a first strike by the United States. The United States’ “extended deterrence” containing China and China’s “extended deterrence” safeguarding its economic rise leaves both jostling for military advantage. In effect, US actions are triggering a set of actions and counteractions that are escalating tensions in the region.

Members of the Biden Administration extol the Camp David Agreement as historic and unprecedented and as a qualitative leap forward in the United States, Japan, and South Korea military co-operation and co-ordination. At the same time, they oppose its characterisation as a mini-Asian Nato.

And while the agreement has not yet reached Nato status, it is clearly laying the groundwork toward that objective. It has also driven China, North Korea, and Russia to strengthen their own co-ordination, effectively consolidating an opposing bloc. Ultimately, the fight to establish competing “extended deterrence” is the beginning of war. To stop war, we must shift from military posturing and escalation to diplomatic solutions and respect for the security concerns of all countries.

Jeffrey Wagner is an educator in South Korea and a member of the International Strategy Centre. Dae-Han Song is in charge of the networking team at the International Strategy Centre and is a part of the ‘No Cold War’ collective.

This article was produced by Globetrotter and published on Peoples Dispatch.