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WEB EXCLUSIVE: Japan, South Korea Rapprochement Opportunity for Military Tech Cooperation
Tensions caused by North Korea and China are causing a diplomatic thaw between rivals Japan and South Korea, which is benefiting the United States military as it shifts its defense posture to the Indo-Pacific, experts said June 8 during a panel discussion at the Center for a New American Security think tank.
“It's a truly exciting time in the U.S., Japan and [South Korea] trilateral relations ... The United States and its two allies are now boldly saying that a functioning trilateral relationship is important for regional stability, and it ought to be sustained just as a matter of course, not just when there's a discreet threat from North Korea.” said Joshua Fitt, associate fellow of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS.
Japan and South Korea are still dealing with issues dating back to World War II, which have caused diplomatic tensions between the two nations. There was little in the way of military cooperation and intelligence sharing in recent years.
“Historically, the trilateral has been pushed closer in response to discrete provocations from North Korea,” Fitt said, “I think [there] was a realization in both Seoul and Tokyo that the threat environment in the Indo-Pacific and particularly in northeast Asia is rapidly deteriorating due to an increased aggression from China and North Korea.”
This newly strengthened trilateral relationship, as well as the increased aggression from other Northeast Asian countries, affects many aspects of government, one of them being the military sphere, said Jacob Stokes, senior fellow at CNAS' Indo-Pacific Security Program.
“A lot of it is driven by those deepening threat perceptions from North Korea and China, and to a lesser extent, Russia,” he said, The leaders from the three countries meet on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid in June 2022. In March, South Korea's foreign ministry announced that it would normalize what is known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement, which is a vital military intelligence sharing pact with Japan that had been suspended in 2019. In April, senior commanders of the submarine fleets of the three nations met abnord we saw the first trilateral embark onboard a US ballistic missile submarine, he noted.
Hannah Kelley, research assistant at the Technology and National Security Program at the CNAS, said general cooperation among the three countries have increased, particularly in the technology sector. “With so many different players moving in this [tech] space, there needs to be some sort of cooperation and collaboration to make sure that the rules of the road are set by those that we want to be setting them when it comes to norms and standards,” she said,
She noted that the South Korean vice minister of science and information and communications technology also recently spoke about how the nation is considering expanding cooperation with Japan in sectors like artificial intelliegence and 5G and 6G wireless networks, space and quantum technologies. "There's an appetite to really stretch the relationship's legs in terms of specific tech sectors that they can cooperate on,” Kelley added.
Technology, and particularly defense technology, continues to play an important role in the trilateral relationship especially as Chinese technology develops rapidly, she said.
“China is moving extremely fast in certain technology areas,” she said, “One example that comes to mind is artificial intelligence. They're really pushing with artificial intelligence right now. The potential for China setting the rules of the road for artificial intelligence is concerning, given how they are already leveraging capabilities that exist in their mass surveillance, in their oppression state, in how they're exporting those capabilities to other states. That is really concerning.”
The trilateral relationship is important in the current political and technological climate, she said.
“There's a shared understanding that we have to get over some of these speed bumps in our relationship so that we can be sitting on the same side of the table writing rules for these technology sectors that we really want to be leaders in,” she said.
The shared use of defense technology is a huge advantage of this trilateral relationship, said Stokes.
“We already see the three partners: Japan, [South Korea], and the U.S. working to activate a data sharing mechanism to exchange real time missile warning data, ideally before the end of the year,” he said, “That's a really important term step, but you could envision adding on things in that space related to maritime and space domain awareness that could be fruitful and would be of interest to all three countries in the pretty immediate future.”
The immediate threat posed by China and North Korea has had a huge impact on the fast improvements of this trilateral relationship, but especially on the bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea. It turned bitter back in 2018 when Japan alleged that a South Korean navy destroyer locked fire control radar, the last step before actively firing, on Japanese aircraft.
“The North Korea threat has really spurred this conversation to the fore, perhaps earlier than it would have as far as encouraging both states to start to thaw the tension that was existing,” Kelley said, “We really want to be involved in the global economy when it comes to these technology sectors. But if we're too busy sort of struggling on the side, that conversation is going to pass us by. [Japan and South Korea] want to be a part of that conversation and both have shown longstanding positive relationships with the United States.”