pacific forum History of Pacific Forum

2019 US-ROK-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue


– 09/06/2019


Maui, Hawaii


Maui, Hawaii

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The Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), brought 41 officials and experts from the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ROK), along with eight Pacific Forum Young Leaders, all attending in their private capacity, to Maui, Hawaii, Sept. 5-6, 2019 to explore the three countries’ thinking about extended deterrence and prospects for and obstacles to strengthened trilateral security cooperation. A two-move tabletop exercise (TTX) was focused on concerted and coordinated efforts by China and North Korea to revise the status quo in Northeast Asia. Key findings include:

Despite political difficulties, there was little difference among participants regarding assessments of the situation and dynamics in Northeast Asia. They were generally aligned and this was evident in responses to the TTX: they sought to prevent opportunism, provide off-ramps for adversaries, and didn’t rush to connect the incidents.

Official statements notwithstanding, there is rising anxiety in Seoul and Tokyo for a variety of reasons. In the ROK, some concerns focus on the role of nuclear solutions to national security problems. In Japan, the issue is often the US-China balance of power. Tokyo and Seoul remain committed to their alliances with the US, however.

Participants acknowledged that conventional strength among allies and the ability to coordinate more seamlessly strengthened extended deterrence.

There were various views of political decoupling and its impact on strategic decoupling. Despite differences, there was general agreement that political decoupling and poor Japan-ROK relations erode strategic alignment; prevent the three countries from improving deterrence; and provide China and North Korea with a wedge to employ against both alliances.

There continue to be misunderstandings among Asian allies about US relations with NATO and nuclear coordination. Many experts in Japan and ROK believe that they have neither the priority in US eyes nor the best possible nuclear umbrella, and desire a more “NATO-like” nuclear arrangement without full understanding of what that actually entails.

The US should encourage greater allied participation in nuclear policy discussions. Those allies must understand that increased input into discussions means that they will share responsibility for subsequent decisions.

Improving Chinese conventional capabilities demand that US-ally deterrence dialogues spend more time on conventional issues. There was a growing appreciation that the full continuum of military capability from conventional to nuclear, to include allied interoperability, helps under-write extended deterrence. Future developments and cross-domain capabilities will add to this.

There was concern about the impact of new technologies on the warfighting environment in Northeast Asia. While deployments of those technologies are still years to come, security planners must accelerate efforts to anticipate—and counter—those effects. These efforts will be complicated by the increasingly strained fiscal situation in each country.

There was considerable debate about the future and importance of GSOMIA. ROK participants insisted that information sharing would continue even if GSOMIA lapsed, and there was time to save GSOMIA since it didn’t expire until November. US participants argued that TISA is a poor substitute.

The difference in views between Japan and the ROK over GSOMIA was evident at other times in the discussion. There were troubling assertions of national pride, such as insisting on who had to initiate contact for the exchange of information.

As in previous meetings, ROK participants emphasized that they increasingly see China as a potential adversary. They argued that their military planning is not purely focused on the Korean Peninsula and that actions taken to improve ROK defense address regional stability and security, great power competition, and countering incremental revisionism. They are concerned about continued or intensified Chinese economic pressure as they enhance or strengthen the alliance.

There is concern in Seoul about alliance management with the US and the appropriate balance of defense and diplomacy. South Korean participants argue that adjustments in ROK defense policy do not constitute a radical shift in direction or policy.

Japanese security planners no longer assume that they have superiority in the air and maritime domains but focus on maintaining overall superiority via cross-domain operations. Japanese are very concerned about North Korean short- and medium-range missiles.

For deterrence to be credible, adversaries must believe that their threats of escalation are less credible than US threats of escalation. This basic fact assumes growing significance when there is a growing perception that US commitment to the region and allies, more generally, is weakening.

There is widespread agreement that the US should deploy new missiles in Asia to redress a balance of power that is shifting against it. Few seemed eager to have them in their own country, however.

While public opinion opposes new weapon deployments, the US and its partners must stress that new weapons are conventional, not nuclear.

In any regional crisis, the US and allies both in and beyond the region must be alert to opportunistic exploitation by other adversaries.

TTX Move 1

A Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force warship monitoring a suspected DPRK illicit ship to ship transfer of goods near Chinese waters is attacked and it attacks an underwater contact in response. An ROK surveillance aircraft monitoring the situation while in the KADIZ collides with a PLA fighter and is lost. North Korea begins preparing for a nuclear weapon test. Chinese saber-rattling intensifies as Beijing-Pyongyang relations markedly improve.

The primary question for any Chinese act considered to be a provocation is whether it is an isolated incident or part of a broader attempt to rewrite the regional status quo. If the latter—or if any country is determined to do so—the general view was that the US and its allies should “escalate to de-escalate”: take decisive measures to convince the adversary that those governments will not tolerate such actions.

Participants paid little attention to North Korean nuclear test preparations; apparently, such tests have been normalized.

While all participants believe that a case must be made to the United Nations Security Council and that it is vital to win over international public opinion, there is little hope that the UNSC will censure provocative behavior by China or North Korea.

While participants were concerned that excessive reaction to a provocation might escalate a crisis, there was also fear that publics would demand more substantial responses.

TTX Move 2

China tries to exclude all countries from waters near Shanghai as it searches for a lost submarine. It mobilizes nuclear forces and denounces the US and its alliances. North Korea seizes Yongpyeong Island and launches a missile that flies over Japan and detonates a nuclear explosion in the Pacific Ocean. 

Participants concluded that these events belied a coordinated effort by China and North Korea to break the US alliance system and impose a Sino-centric security order. If that interpretation is correct, then the US and its allies must be prepared to risk escalation to convince those adversaries of US and allied resolve.

Allies warned that they were studying closely the US response to the nuclear detonation and would base their policies on the nature of that response.

ROK participants warned that a possible US nuclear response risked contaminating the peninsula, rendering it uninhabitable—especially if North Korea responded in kind. US participants responded that restraint would impose significant costs on allies—conflict termination would take much longer.

Cascading and/or connected incidents create powerful demands on limited resources.

In a complex crisis, little attention was paid to how signals sent to one adversary might be (mis) interpreted by another adversary. Posturing forces to prepare to fight vs initial signaling can be entirely different—in terms of what, how much and where those forces are sent. The same postured forces provide messages in multiple directions and for different purposes.

There was general agreement that participants did not pay sufficient attention to nonmilitary means of compelling adversaries or changing their decision-making calculus. This underscored the need for true “whole of nation” efforts.

Strategic and operational level planning considerations:

  • Alliance coordination is especially difficult when each ally is dealing with a separate contingency at the same time. The impact of such coordination is not even given the existing regional force posture and roles and missions assigned. Japan is more critical to US-ROK alliance operations than South Korea is to US-Japan alliance operations.
  • Improved operational concepts—ways—will complement improvements in capability and capacity—means. The diminished visibility of conceptual ways may not contribute to deterrence as compellingly as more visible capability and capacity improvements, however.
  • US military strategy—shifting from multiple MCO-constructs to a more limited, and sequential, approach—may encourage adventurism by third parties in a crisis, or contribute to miscalculation by aggressors perceiving advantage and opportunity (whether real or imagined).
  • Allies noted that Russia is playing an increasingly visible role in Northeast Asia, acknowledging that it would likely be a factor in any regional crisis. Even if not directly involved in that contingency, there is concern that Moscow may exploit a crisis by acting opportunistically in another theater, most likely Europe.
  • There is growing allied concern regarding the appearance of increasing alignment of China and Russia in foreign policy and strategic interests. Unlike previous years, there was more emphasis on coordination and cooperation between Beijing and Moscow than on potential conflicts between them. Allies have noted the continued and growing sophistication of Chinese and Russian coordinated operations since 2016.

Recommended actions:

  • Within each alliance, establish a Nuclear Policy Group, a bilateral defense ministerial-level mechanism (akin to the NATO NPG), that would provide guidance on nuclear policy and review plans, exercises, and national developments for that alliance.
  • Widen agenda in Northeast Asia deterrence dialogues to factor conventional forces.
  • Expand trilateral exchanges and exercises (from command post-level to field-level) focusing on the coordination required to successfully address single and multiple regional crisis situations.

This publication results from research sponsored by the Department of the Air Force, United States Air Force Academy. This material is based on research sponsored by the USAFA and the Pacific Forum International, under agreement number FA7000-19-2-0016. The U.S. Government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for Governmental purposes notwithstanding any copyright notation thereon.

The opinions, findings, views, conclusions or recommendations contained herein are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies or endorsements, either expressed or implied, of the USAFA or the U.S. Government.