The undisputed evaluation of the summit is that it was a bilateral success. US media and think tanks alike acknowledged that each side gave the other enough to keep the alliance moving forward and to make possible coordination on multiple challenges that lie in wait. Yet when viewed from a trilateral perspective, the results appear more as a holding operation. Not only was there no sign of a breakthrough in many directions, the equanimity shown suggests a lull before the storm. Reflecting on concerns visible in Washington, this commentary considers triangular frameworks ranging from North Korea to China, Japan, Russia, and the Southern Tier. US-ROK relations appear robust bilaterally, but much less so in these triangular perspectives.
The logic of a holding operation may seem persuasive to veteran diplomats. Why not cut Moon some slack in dealing with North Korea when Kim Jong-un shows no inclination to capitalize on Moon’s final year as president to try to drive a wedge between allies? As Sino-US relations have yet to settle into a groove after a few years of jerky vicissitudes, why pressure Seoul to make difficult choices, which it clearly is unprepared to do, especially when the South Korean public already leans heavily against China? The Biden-Suga summit a month earlier had set a high bar for both bilateral and triangular agreement, giving the US a secure foundation on which to build, if incrementally, while it left the Moon administration in danger of being overshadowed if signs of ROK-US discord were exposed. The right tone was reached to satisfy each side’s needs.
Veteran diplomats had the good sense to leave well enough alone. If Seoul is to be squeezed to make difficult choices, let the pressure be perceived as coming from the other side. Calm down concerns that the US side is disrupting the equilibrium—as in SMA talks demanding huge new payments for US forces in Korea or in threats of a preemptive strike on North Korea or in talk of regime change in China, as occurred under Trump. Offer Seoul tangible benefits as in the end of limitations on missile mileage and vaccines for ROK forces. The bilateral boost would make it easier to face the trilateral challenges ahead together on a basis of goodwill or sustained trust.
Behind the serene façade was a very different outcome than that reached a month earlier in the US-Japan summit. Then, momentum was building on various triangular fronts, especially toward a joint agenda on China and solidifying the Quad in Asia’s southern tier with India and Australia. Yet, momentum in Japan-ROK relations was less visible, and Russia was left aside. In the case of the Biden-Moon summit, there was just enough whiff of triangularity on China to leave some in Seoul wary of retribution and on Japan to remind them of the 2015 US pressure for a “comfort women” agreement that was received badly. Unlike Japanese hopefulness for more triangularity ahead, South Koreans only found some relief it had been limited for now.
The ROK-DPRK-US triangle
If Moon had preferred that Biden take the initiative to entice Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table, the US side conveyed the message that the ball is in the North Korean court. This is well understood to have a dual meaning:diplomatic initiative will be met with an eager response, but new provocations will also draw a reaction. If this sounds a lot like Obama’s “strategic patience” managed by many of the same officials, it has been lightly rebranded with approval of the Singapore and Panmunjom communiques of 2018. In these circumstances, it is within Pyongyang’s power to drive a wedge between the two allies—either through diplomacy that exposes different inclinations to relax sanctions or through provocations that are taken more seriously in Washington. The easiest atmosphere for US-ROK harmony is when the DPRK stays aloof from the outside world—in 2020 compounded by the pandemic lockdown—but nobody expects that to last. It is unclear whether Seoul and Washington are agreed on the next stage.
US soft-pedaling of tough conditions for relaxing sanctions and openness to Seoul probing for a way forward toward talks met Moon’s minimal standards, but they did little to narrow the gap between Seoul and Washington on how to advance diplomacy with Pyongyang. Few expect any progress on this basis. This triangle remains in the troubled state it had reached much earlier.
The ROK-Chinese-US triangle
Reference to China was noticeably absent in the US-ROK joint statement. Chinese sources had delivered repeated warnings about what could cross a red line, reinforcing the message sent in 2016 that retaliation for transgressions, such as the THAAD deployment, would be painful. If in some of the summit language, such as a reference to peace and stability in Taiwan, Moon went further than many expected, care was taken to avoid testing Beijing’s will. Given the deepening Sino-US cleavage, however, walking this tightrope did not seem sustainable. Just in the next few days, Biden’s instructions to the US intelligence community to investigate further the possibility of COVID-19 having originated from a leak at the Wuhan virology lab drew sharp censure from Chinese authorities. While Beijing has been guarded about taking strong measures against the US, it has no such scruples (or fear of paying a big price) about flexing its muscles toward Seoul.
Notable in the summit was US restraint in seeking open commitments on China. Was it because the US had yet to decide on concrete steps or due to a strategy of incrementalism in order to conclude an upbeat summit and deflect blame in Seoul for anticipated moves by Beijing? Eager for improved Japan-ROK relations, the Biden administration could wait on ROK-China relations. Some might conclude that the US won just enough fresh language to set a process in motion.
The ROK-Japanese-US triangle
The US pursuit of trilateralism was largely shelved to facilitate an upbeat summit. Unlike the triangles with North Korea and China, the Biden administration holds the initiative, given its ability to pressure both Seoul and Tokyo if they make moves that would set back what little trilateralism under US leadership exists. Failure to achieve a breakthrough was no surprise, but it puts at risk the US priority of securing multilateralism of allies and security partners as the first stage of developing a grand strategy for the Indo-Pacific region. Given the timebomb of enforcement of court decisions against Japanese firms responsible for wartime forced labor followed by Japanese government retaliation, calming tensions in 2021 is not a trivial outcome, but in light of Biden’s aspirations more effort can be expected against the danger of setbacks.
Actually, quiet progress in both the Suga and Moon summits on trilateralism was more than meets the eye. Both sides better understand US determination and the case for why easing their bilateral tensions is essential. We can expect the most follow-up soon on this challenge as the three leaders go to London for the G7, but the pandemic leaves in doubt Tokyo Olympics diplomacy. With Moon in his lame duck year, progress on this trilateral may not be rushed.
The ROK-Russian-US triangle
For a decade as Russo-US relations have deteriorated, South Korea has remained aloof with talk of good bilateral relations with Moscow and promising projects engaging North Korea. There is no need, however, to address this contradiction between allies, since ROK-Russian relations are at a low intensity. Washington can let this pass as it awaits action by North Korea that could put Russia more unambiguously on its side and force Seoul to acknowledge the real state of affairs.
The ROK-Southern Tier-US Triangle
US interest in having South Korea join the Quad or Quad Plus is not only an extension of efforts to boost Japan-ROK coordination beyond the Korean Peninsula but also an effort to facilitate its ties with India, Australia, and security partners in Southeast Asia. This could oblige Seoul to take a stand on the South China Sea besides abstract support for the principles guiding the US and Japan and to become more engaged in a counter-strategy to China’s BRI. Nudging Moon to mention the Indo-Pacific or, more boldly, to refer to the FOIP, is a challenge with only slow payoff. Chinese sources have specifically warned Moon against such steps and the Quad Plus. The summit witnessed careful balancing between US desires and Chinese red lines, but Moon gave Biden just enough compromises in language that the balance seems to have been tilted.
The Biden-Moon summit was a success of US diplomacy in trying circumstances and of South Korean diplomacy wary of a negative outcome. By keeping the focus on bilateralism it found areas of success, but it paled before the Biden-Suga summit as a force for transformation in the Indo-Pacific region, which is the strategic priority of the US. It served as a placeholder as both the Sino-US relationship is clarified and South Koreans is soon to choose a new president. This puts South Korea’s role in triangular ties on hold with the exception of trilateralism with Japan, for which further US efforts, albeit quiet and gradual ones, can be anticipated during 2021.
Japanese coverage of the Suga-Biden summit showcased US strategic thinking, especially the role of Kurt Campbell in strategizing about China and the Indo-Pacific region. South Koreans gave Moon some credit for meeting certain US expectations or raised concern that trouble with China might thereby ensue but hesitated to explain US strategic thinking and their country’s role in it. Progressives appeared to think it would be possible to keep walking a tightrope apart from the new US direction. Clearly, the US image of Japan as an indispensable partner joining on a shared strategic mission contrasted with that of South Korea as a hesitant partner.
Observers who concentrate on bilateral relations, as has been the custom by both international relations specialists and the media, are in danger of missing the thrust of developments in the Indo-Pacific region. The rise of China and the response of the Biden administration are ushering in an age of triangularity. The shadow of multiple triangles hung over the Biden-Moon summit, as it had over the Biden-Suga summit. In the Japanese case, this was widely acknowledged and shaped our understanding of what had transpired. In the Korean case, it was mostly obscured, as neither side found it advantageous to spoil the upbeat atmosphere. The Biden-Suga meeting saw the momentum building to address the triangles in new ways, while when the Biden-Moon summit occurred, they were mostly relegated to the margins. A reckoning for US-ROK relations in regional context has been postponed, but it is likely to come sooner rather than later.