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Issues & Insights Vol. 18, CR2 – Addressing Weaknesses in the Trilateral Relationship

In June 2017, Young Leaders were invited to observe and participate in the US-ROK-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue held in Maui, Hawaii. The dialogue was hosted by the Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the US Air Force Academy Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts on Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (AFA PASCC). Forty officials and experts from the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ROK), along with 20 Pacific Forum Young Leaders, attended in their private capacity. During the two-day dialogue, participants played out a tabletop exercise (TTX) to explore each countries’ thinking about regional security, US extended deterrence, and ways to strengthen trilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the Young Leaders were divided into teams to critically analyze the TTX discussion and responses, answering four questions:
Did the TTX realistically capture the potential dynamics of a conflict on the peninsula (and if not, why not?)?
Are there particular capabilities for defense, offense, or deterrence that were either missing or could have been put to better use?
Was there a particular diplomatic or political action or reaction that your group would have done differently? What was it, and what would you have done instead?
What should policymakers be doing now to reduce the risk that such a conflict might occur?
In their responses, all groups highlighted the difference in threat perceptions from each country. The US opted for a preemptive strike to defend its homeland, believing this would not escalate the situation with a limited strike. The ROK was afraid of entrapment, and Japan was concerned with abandonment if the US is more interested in defending itself than its allies. The Young Leaders were acutely aware of the impact domestic politics would play in a real conflict although they did not play into the TTX. Group 4 suggests that it is important to design a consistent, robust approach to North Korea that can stand the test of domestic leadership changes.
All of the groups also pointed out the need for greater expertise in cyber issues. Group 1 explained that proportionality needs to be clearly defined in cyber/cross-domain deterrence. Three of the five pieces also mentioned the need for more trilateral cooperation for non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO), HA/DR, and intelligence sharing. Groups 1 and 2 also placed emphasis on the need for closer coordination with China. Despite differences in thinking on how to handle the crisis, Group 3 stressed the importance of maintaining a united front against Pyongyang. To maintain peace and stability in East Asia, the trilateral alliance must address the weaknesses in their relationships exposed by scenarios like the one in this TTX.