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Japan-ROK Parliamentary Dialogue
-Japan-ROK Cooperation in the Era of US-China Competition-

On March 11, 2021, the Society of Security and Diplomatic Policy Studies (SSDP) and the office of National Assembly Member Kwang Jae Lee of the Republic of Korea co-hosted an online Japan-ROK parliamentary dialogue.

This is a sequel to "JAPAN-ROK FUTURE DIALOGUE: Japan-ROK Cooperation in the Post-COVID-19 Era," which was co-hosted by SSDP and the Yeosijae (Future Consensus Institute) of the Republic of Korea last November.

The theme of the recent dialogue was "Japan-ROK Cooperation in the Era of US-China Competition." The participants (see list below) exchanged opinions from the perspective of security and foreign policy.


  • Masahiro Akiyama Chairman, SSDP
  • Shigeru Ishiba Member of the House of Representatives (LDP)
  • Masao Okonogi Emeritus Professor, Keio University
  • Masaaki Taira Member of the House of Representatives (LDP)
  • Akihisa Nagashima Member of the House of Representatives (LDP)
  • Tsuneo Watanabe Adjunct Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies

South Korea

  • Kwang Jae Lee Member of the National Assembly (Democratic Party of Korea)
  • Min Gyo Koo Professor, Seoul National University
  • Park Young-June Professor, Korea National Defense University
  • Hyang-ja Yang Member of the National Assembly (Democratic Party of Korea)

A full detailed report will be available in due course on this website. Posted here is the keynote speech, "A Middle-Power Strategy Pursued by Japan and South Korea in an Era of US-China Confrontation" (Tsuneo Watanabe), which is the centerpiece of the dialogue.

A Middle-Power Strategy Pursued by Japan and South Korea in an Era of US-China Confrontation

Tsuneo Watanabe
Adjunct Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies

The Biden Administration's Strategic Outlook on China

On February 4, 2021, US President Biden gave a foreign policy speech in which he defined China as the most "serious competitor" and stressed the importance of the alliance. An emphasis on allies and international cooperation barely distinguished the new administration from the previous Trump administration.

The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance released in March recognizes that the global power balance has been shifting significantly and explicitly states that China is challenging the stable and open international system by combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power. 1

This recognition suggests the end of the cooperative engagement policy initiated by the Nixon administration in 1972. The Trump administration took up a hardline stance against China, and the Biden administration has followed suit. This is a historic change that will continue shaping things over a long time.

- In the formulation of foreign policy toward China, every US administration followed a peculiar pattern: it criticized the previous administration, if the latter had been lenient toward China, and adopted an opposite policy, or criticized the previous administration, if the latter had been tough on China, and adopted a conciliatory one.

- This is because the past US administrations did not look upon China as a serious rival like the former Soviet Union.

For example, the Clinton administration, which came to power, criticizing the previous senior Bush administration for its laxity on human rights issues in China, supported China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). The junior Bush administration, which criticized Clinton's conciliatory stance, avoided confrontation with China, anticipating its cooperation in the post 9.11 war on terror.

At present, however, China's increasingly radical challenge against the international order and rules, with its expanding military and economic influence in the background, is compelling US bipartisan leaders to take a stand against China.

All that distinguishes President Biden's policy toward China from the previous administration is his emphasis on international cooperation. Yet, his China policy has a theoretical ground.

- In a joint paper with Rush Doshi, senior director for China at the NSC, Kurt Campbell, who has taken the post of coordinator for the Indo-Pacific at the NSC, recommends, in reference to the balance of power in 19th century Europe, that the United States should strike a balance in cooperation with its allies and partners to forestall military adventurism threatening the regional order in Asia that is favorable for Chinese dominance.

- The new administration envisions not only a more robust military alliance but also the advancement among Japan, the United States, and India of investment in regional economic infrastructures to counter China, as well as the strengthening of international cooperation involving Europe on such issues as trade, technology, supply chains, and standards-setting.

According to this strategic thinking, the defense of Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, all of which exist along the first island chain, is vital to the United States --- because China's control of the first island chain would allow the country easy military access to the Pacific Ocean, dramatically changing the military balance in the region. Such a development would not only send a wrong signal to China but pose a grave threat to the defense of the US mainland.

The Biden Administration's Concerns about North Korea

The Biden administration is of the opinion that North Korea's nuclear program and its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US mainland should not be left unattended any longer. This is because:

- First, North Korea's armament efforts will pose a direct, serious threat to the US defense.

- Second, among the Biden administration's agenda of multilaterally addressing global challenges is the prevention, as a primary goal, of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the world.

- President Trump was interested solely in increasing the burden on Japan and South Korea for stationing US troops in each of the countries and in reducing US trade deficits. He implicitly demanded that US allies should bear the cost of nuclear deterrence and went so far as to mention the allies' nuclear armament for self-defense. President Trump had no interest in the issue of WMD non-proliferation in the world.

Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer of the public policy think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS), upholds "incrementalism" rather than "solutionism." His recommendations may help understand the Biden administration's strategic outlook.

- The CNAS is a think tank founded by Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council's Indo-Pacific coordinator in the Biden administration, and by Michelle Flournoy, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, who was one of the candidates for Secretary of Defense in the Biden administration. Ely Ratner, who was until recently Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the CNAS, has joined the Biden administration as Special Assistant to Secretary of Defense Austin and is currently conducting a four-month policy review called the "China Task Force" at the Pentagon. Its assignments include a review of the global posture of the US military forces. 2

According to Fontaine's article, "The Case Against Foreign Policy Solutionism," generally speaking, Americans like to be "winners." Diplomats are no exception in their desire to be "winners"; they tend to choose to take action to move things forward rather than risk taking no action. In the real world of diplomacy, however, there are many cases where action makes things worse.

- The Trump administration's diplomacy toward North Korea evolved around summit talks between President Trump and North Korean Workers' Party Chairman Kim Jong-un, aiming at curbing North Korea's nuclear development program or urging North Korea to abandon it. But it ended with North Korea's development of 15 nuclear warheads and two ICBMs.

Recognizing the risk of passive diplomacy, Fontaine advocates the effectiveness of diplomatic gradualism.

- He recommends that US future policy toward North Korea should focus on strengthening the deterrence system by clarifying possible retaliatory measures if North Korea uses nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies.

- As part of the strengthening of the deterrence system, Fontaine proposes the furtherance of security cooperation between Japan and South Korea, covert sabotage operations against North Korea's nuclear weapons program through cyberattacks, and new economic sanctions targeting North Korea's elite class.

The Biden Administration's Expectations for US Allies: Japan and South Korea's Contribution

The US government's "Interim National Security Strategic Guidance" released in March reads: "Our democratic alliances enable us to present a common front, produce a unified vision, and pool our strength to promote high standards, establish effective international rules, and hold countries like China to account." Specifically, the Guidance names NATO, Australia, Japan, and South Korea, saying, "We will work with allies to share responsibilities equitably, while encouraging them to invest in their own comparative advantages against shared current and future threats."

As President Biden said in his op-ed for Foreign Affairs magazine, he is proud that the Obama administration extracted pledges from NATO allies to commit 2 percent of their GDP to defense spending. His article indicates that the Biden administration will also require an increase in the burden-sharing on the part of US allies --- but from a different stance from that of the Trump administration, which unilaterally demanded that South Korea and Japan bear the costs for US bases in their territories.

The above is in line with another core foreign policy of the Biden administration, "security policy for the middle class."

- Winning back the support of the middle-class who voted for Trump in the latest presidential election is essential to the re-election of President Biden. His re-election is significant for Japan and South Korea.

- Biden's re-election is vital for Japan and South Korea because nobody wants the United States to return to Trumpism.

- The Biden administration has high expectations for cooperation from Japan and South Korea in exerting economic pressure on China.

- Past US administrations looked to China and Russia for cooperation to curb North Korea's nuclear program, but the Biden administration entertains no illusions about those countries.

- Consequently, expectations are rising for increased deterrence on North Korea through trilateral cooperation between Japan, the United States, and South Korea.

- Japan-South Korea relations are all-time worst. It is highly likely that President Biden, who had been watching the North's devious nuclear machinations as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will reach out directly to the leaders of Japan and South Korea.

-This is because the NSC is well aware of the risk of a change in the regional balance caused by South Korea's leaning toward China.

America's Partial Decoupling from China

Americans, in general, are warier of China than ever before, and the US government is intensifying measures to restrain China on both military and economic fronts. But it is also true that US corporations do not want to lose profits from the Chinese market amid the current unprecedented economic crisis.

One possible solution is "partial decoupling or partial disengagement" --- the United States will not completely disengage from the Chinese economy but block the outflow of core competitive technologies to China to maintain US superiority in military and civilian technologies, including high-tech. Japanese and South Korean companies will be required to cooperate with the US policy.

The above-mentioned "Interim National Security Strategic Guidance" emphasizes the importance of diplomacy. According to the document, "The United States will never hesitate to use force when required to defend our vital national interests ... and allies." "But the use of military force should be a last resort, not the first; diplomacy ... and economic statecraft (foreign and security policy through economic means) should be the leading instruments of American foreign policy."

The Biden administration's professed commitment to economic statecraft toward China will entail its higher expectations for economic cooperation from Japan and South Korea.

- Especially concerning export controls and investment restrictions, we will have to have prior consultation with the US government; we must take care not to adopt measures disadvantageous to our industries.

As Middle-Power Strategy Pursued by Japan and South Korea

In Japan and South Korea, there are bases hosting US troops; both countries rely heavily on US military power for their security.

- On the other hand, both of them, as neighbors of China, economically depend heavily on China's labor force and markets. MIT Professor Richard Samuels and others have already called this ambivalent position of Japan "Japan's dual hedge." 3 South Korea's economic dependence on China is even greater than Japan's. On the other hand, its reliance on the deterrent power of USFK to confront North Korea seems to be decisive.

In the future, Japan and South Korea will have to face two demanding challenges: growing US expectations for their contribution to the regional security and their cooperation in America's partial decoupling from China.

In this context, the key to Japan and South Korea's survival and overcoming these challenges lies in maintaining the regional order through middle-power cooperation with Australia, ASEAN countries, India, and Canada.

It is also important for Japan and South Korea to align on partial decoupling, looking at both China and the United States.

- The Biden administration is reportedly coordinating its first two-plus-two meeting with each of Japan and South Korea. A Japan-South Korea talk preceding the two-plus-two meetings would not only make those meetings more fruitful but also help increase the two allies' bargaining power toward the United States.

- The current diplomatic hiatus between Japan and South Korea will weaken our respective positions toward both China and the United States.

The Biden administration is emphasizing the roles of middle powers and US relationships with them. The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance recommends strengthening US connections, first with the Indo-Pacific, then with Europe and the Western Hemisphere (Latin America and Canada), and particularly stresses the importance of the Indo-Pacific facing China.

- The document emphasizes US partnership with India, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, and other ASEAN countries, and Pacific island countries, in addition to allies such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea. The Biden administration's focus on these regional states and partners, who are subject to intensive Chinese influence but simultaneously wary of the country, is considered to be a continuation of the Pentagon's 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report issued under the Trump administration.

These middle-power players, who are concerned about China's deviation from international rules, share interests with Japan and South Korea in sustaining the existing regional order by involving the United States in efforts to maintain it.

- On the other hand, many Asian countries are concerned if they will have to choose the United States or China. Forging a strategic alignment with these influential regional states would enable Japan and South Korea to build a cooperation network that the United States alone cannot shape or enhance their presence among those states.

For Japan and South Korea, these middle-power players are also important economic partners and can serve as a hedge against becoming embroiled unilaterally in the worsening US-China confrontation. Meanwhile, as the US-China confrontation progresses, if Japan and South Korea allow their emotional reciprocal antipathy to stagnate cooperation with these regional countries, they will incur massive losses.

- Japan and South Korea should note and share the necessity of a middle-power strategy that envisages their survival and prosperity. Thereby, they should overcome thorny problems that lie between them. The resumption of bilateral dialogues and cooperation would benefit the two neighbors by increasing their bargaining power toward the United States and China. The Biden administration assumes collaboration with Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, and Southeast Asian countries. It also makes much of cooperation with Pacific island countries, Canada, and Europe.

- The United States will be discontent with the alienation between Japan and South Korea; Australia, India, and Southeast Asian countries may also be discontent with the current stalemate in Japan-South Korea relations.

From a long-term perspective, Japan and South Korea need to maintain a balanced relationship with both the United States and China in the years to come.

- It is precisely in this era of US-China confrontation that Japan and South Korea need to look at the big picture.

- If Japan and South Korea remain stuck in disputes over problems at hand and undermine their long-term national interests, they will sacrifice the regional stability in Asia that will benefit them over a long period as well as economic prosperity accompanying it.

(This paper was translated into English by Tsutomu Inuzuka, SSDP Associate)

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