The US, Japan and South Korea are failing to solve the issues pertaining to stationing of American forces in the region because of differences in burden-sharing to maintain the current security architecture in the region. At the same time, the security situation has become very volatile. The more time it takes to solve the differences among the three security partners, the more it can damage the prevailing security architecture.
With both South Korea and Japan having taken hardened stances, it seems there is no solution in sight in the near future, providing ample opportunity for China to exploit this weakness, as shown in the trilateral summit among China, South Korea and Japan in the southern Chinese city of Chengdu recently. Current burden-sharing negotiations have clearly exposed the gaps in strategic perceptions of the US and its regional allies.
The US-led security architecture that has maintained peace and brought prosperity to the region is under serious stress and is becoming more and more unsustainable. First, it is becoming much more expensive for the US to maintain its military dominance because of the increasing military and economic might of China.
Second, the US forces are fast losing their deterrence value in the region. US pressure has failed to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. Also, in the South China Sea, despite all warnings, the US has failed to stop China from building new artificial islands.
Third, economically also, it does not pay the US as before to keep peace in the region. Not long ago the US was the biggest trading partner for most of the Asia-Pacific countries. This position has been replaced by China. Today, China is the largest economic beneficiary of peace and prosperity in the region.
Last but not least, the US is also losing its soft-power value. China is emerging as the the new leader in many areas, be it climate change or free trade, among others. More and more regional students prefer to go to Chinese universities for the future of their career prospects. The “Chinese Dream” is the new buzzword in the region.
New partnerships in the region
The decline of the US and the rise of China are also bringing new uncertainties into the region. To meet those uncertainties, countries are trying to form different kinds of groupings and partnerships. The emerging India-Japan strategic partnership is one such grouping where two countries are trying to come close and support each other during these uncertain times.
Starting with the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in 2011, the strategic partnership between Japan and India has grown manifold. Recent agreements signed between the two governments such as the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology and the agreement regarding Security Measures for the Protection of Classified Military Information, both in 2015, and then the agreement for cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, have all added real flesh to the strong connections between these countries. As a result of these measures, Japan and India are not only building a stronger economic partnership but are also helping each other in the security arena, such as security of sea lanes of communications in the Indian Ocean and modernization of their armed forces.
While the India-Japan alliance is growing by the day, the India-Korea strategic partnership is failing to click. Trade between those two countries is growing at a snail’s pace and the flow of Korean investment has considerably slowed down in recent years. In the security arena also, the two countries are mainly engaged in micro-level cooperation, while the bigger picture has been completely ignored. This could prove costly for India in the long run.
Currently South Korea is under serious stress due to the changing strategic environment in the region. Even if the issue of payment for US forces is solved in the near future, uncertainties remain about the future role of the US on the Korean Peninsula. Nobody can say for sure how long Korea can depend on US support. To meet those challenges, Seoul has launched an outreach strategy under its New Southern Policy. But while its relations with Southeast Asian countries are going quite well, its ties with India remain only skin deep.
In recent years Korea has come under increasing pressure from China not to “toe the line” with the US on security and economic issues. As a result, Korea is hesitant about the US and its Indo-Pacific strategy. It has strongly supported China in its economic initiatives such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Belt and Road Initiative. Left alone, South Korea would be vulnerable to Chinese pressure, for various, military, economic and geographical reasons.
Further, given the growing frictions between Washington and Seoul related to payment for security, serious differences between the two regarding policy on North Korea and the strong historical animosities between Korea and Japan, it may not take not much for China to pull South Korea out of the Trilateral Alliance. If this happens, a South Korean-Chinese alliance could alter the balance of power in favor of the Chinese dominance in the region.
In such a scenario, no amount of help from India could allow Japan to stand up in the face of the combined might of South Korea and China. The fall of Japan could pave the way for the Chinese navy to take control of the Indian Ocean, as no other country has the wherewithal to curb the ever-growing PLA Navy.
India needs a new strategy
Indian strategic thinkers who are putting all their eggs in the Japanese basket and ignoring South Korea are making a huge strategic blunder. For Japan to stand stronger in the region it is imperative that the power configuration in the region remains in Japan’s favor. Any change in the balance of power that does not favor Japan could disrupt the prevailing security architecture in the region. Thus, to keep the Indian Ocean free and open, it is necessary that the balance of power remains on Japan’s side. And for that to happen it is imperative that South Korea remain on Japan’s side.
Currently there are serious issues about historical legacies in the region that are creating friction between Tokyo and Seoul, and pushing them far apart. Furthermore, the trilateral dialogue that was established to strengthen the security cooperation among Japan, South Korea and India is almost defunct.
That trilateral security dialogue needs to be activated again as soon as possible. Furthermore, there is an urgent need for Indian policymakers to start giving more attention to the Korean Peninsula, and to bring South Korea into their regional strategic paradigm.
With each passing day South Korea is becoming more vulnerable to Chinese pressure. Left alone, Korea may not be able to stand against China much longer. A South Korean alignment with China could alter the balance of power against Japan. In that scenario no amount of Indian partnership may be enough for Japan to maintain the current security order in the region.
Strategic partnership with Japan alone may not serve India’s interests well. India simply cannot afford to ignore the emerging bigger picture in Northeast Asia. A new Indian strategy that addresses the vulnerabilities of South Korea is in order. A sovereign and democratic South Korea aligned with Japan is a sure way to keep the Indian Ocean open to one and all.
There is an urgent need for India to develop a new comprehensive strategic perspective in view of the ongoing changes in the region. Focusing narrowly on Japan may not serve the intended purpose and may prove very costly for India in the near future.