Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Seoul as part of the administration's first overseas trip and shortly before Thursday's high-stakes meeting between a U.S. delegation led by Blinken and senior Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska. The United States is expected to confront Beijing on several issues, including its increasingly aggressive military posture, documented human rights abuses and economic pressure on other countries.
Austin, the retired Army general who Biden selected to be defense secretary, took in a South Korean military ceremony that saw him pass by troops in brightly colored uniforms in a convertible, then lauded South Korea as a "critical partner for our shared priorities in the region," including upholding "the rules-based international order."
U.S. officials have said repeatedly that China wants to upset that order, which includes a network of alliances and partnerships devoted to keeping peace that dates back to shortly after World War II.
"You have become a key provider of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, and for that we are grateful," Austin said in opening remarks at a bilateral meeting with Suh Wook, the South Korean defense minister.
The defense secretary added that "given the unprecedented challenges" created by North Korea and China, the U.S.-South Korean alliance "has never been more important."
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement on Wednesday after the meeting that Austin and Suh discussed issues that included "how to rejuvenate trilateral security cooperation," a reference to collective efforts with Japan.
Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, said in a separate statement that Blinken "affirmed the importance of trilateral cooperation among the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea in ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific."
Similar themes came up in Tokyo, which Austin and Blinken also visited this week. At a news conference with Austin and senior Japanese officials, Blinken said "greater trilateral cooperation" with South Korea "will make us stronger."
But there are still challenges in making that happen.
While the United States has close relationships with both countries that includes tens of thousands of U.S. troops based in each of them, Japan and South Korea's history includes conflict on and off for centuries, and strains in recent years on several fronts. They include continued disagreements about how to address World War II-era abuses of Korean women by Japanese soldiers, maritime territorial disputes, and what to call the Sea of Japan, the body of water between the two nations.
Japan and South Korea have joined the United States at times to counter North Korea, including flying fighter jets over the Korean Peninsula in a combined show of force.
Victor Cha, an expert on the region who served in the administration of President George W. Bush, said in a call with reporters last week that Japan-Korea relations "are about at the worst they've ever been." Among the issues Cha cited was a 2019 dispute in which South Korea threatened to stop sharing intelligence with Japan before agreeing to continue to shortly before a deal between the two countries was set to expire.
"This will certainly be, I think, maybe not as much a public part of the discussion, but I think it'll certainly be something that the United States will impress upon both allies privately, that we need the relationship to improve," said Cha, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
A senior defense official, asked in Seoul about the discussion, said that the trilateral relationship between the United States, South Korea and Japan is important. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said it ideally includes not only information sharing, but looking for ways to increase the ability of the countries to operate together.
One option that has been floated in Washington is inviting South Korea to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the "Quad." The coalition, which includes India, Australia, Japan and the United States, is focused on shared security concerns.
South Korea has not been asked to join it by the United States and was not again on Wednesday in the meeting between Austin and Suh, the senior defense official said.
Joining would come with challenges for South Korea, whose largest trade partner is China. In 2017, after the United States deployed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile-defense system on South Korea, China responded by cutting into its tourism and sales in South Korea. They eventually mended ties, focusing instead on threats posed by North Korea.
Published : March 18, 2021
By : The Washington Post · Dan Lamothe