Linchpin or cornerstone? It takes two to tango! - Korea Times
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Linchpin or cornerstone? It takes two to tango!

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By Yun Byung-se

In diplomacy, semantics and symbolism are no less powerful than actual policy or strategy. The U.S. administration's use of the terms "linchpin" and "cornerstone" vis-a-vis its alliances with Korea and Japan, respectively, is a case in point. They are used with strategic rationale and episodes behind them.

"Linchpin" was first used at the Toronto summit between President Barack Obama and President Lee Myung-bak in June 2010. At the joint press conference, Obama emphasized that the U.S.-ROK alliance was "the linchpin of not only security for the Republic of Korea and the United States but also for the Pacific as a whole."

Since then, "linchpin" has entered the scene in most ROK-U.S. joint statements at various levels, with only slight changes to the applicable regional scope such as Northeast Asia, Asia, Pacific, Asia-Pacific and now Indo-Pacific. This practice has not been affected by the change of governments in either side of the Pacific ― a very strong tradition of continuity.

To illustrate, the latest ROK-U.S. Leaders' Joint Statement of May 21, 2021, between President Joe Biden and President Moon Jae-in reaffirmed the alliance as a "linchpin for the regional and global order," which was preceded by "the linchpin of security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region" during their earlier telephone conversation.

This language is not much different from that used for President Moon's conservative pro-alliance predecessors ― President Lee and President Park Geun-hye, who were very close to their U.S. counterparts. As a matter of fact, the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS), in a rare tone, reported in 2017 that between 2009 and the end of 2016, relations between the two countries had reached their most robust state in decades.

In contrast, according to another CRS report of December 2010, President Obama's "linchpin" remark above stirred some anxiety in Japan, which has traditionally considered itself to be the most significant U.S. partner in the region. "Linchpin" had been an expression used to describe the U.S.-Japan alliance for some time.

Japan's concern was short-lived when Obama coined a new term ― "cornerstone" ― and started using it officially for the U.S.-Japan alliance. As in the case of "linchpin," "cornerstone" has become a built-in fixture in defining the nature and role of their alliance, whether by Trump or Biden.

For Korea, the "linchpin" is a synonym for comprehensive strategic alliance, just as Japan is seeking an equal partnership with the U.S. Both Korea and Japan are all ironclad alliances of the U.S. in Asia which anticipate regional as well as global roles. From the standpoint of the decades-old U.S. hub-and-spokes strategy, both Northeast Asian allies of the U.S. have served as very strong spokes. In an era of networked security and geopolitical rivalry, they are more important as two key pillars for regional peace and security.

This inter-relationship can be lucidly explained by former Secretary Hillary Clinton's famous three-legged stool logic: "Obviously, we cannot sit on that stool if there is only one leg or two, and we cannot sit on it if one leg is longer or shorter than the other two."

The Biden administration has attached the utmost importance to strengthening not only its trilateral cooperation with Korea and Japan, but also the bilateral relations between its two Asian allies. A special State Department statement issued ahead of the Northeast Asia tour by Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in March highlighted this point and this visit heralded a series of trilateral meetings until recently.

More importantly, the above statement touched upon the key rationale of a trilateral relationship. It noted that a "robust and effective trilateral relationship between the three countries is critical for our joint security and interests in defending freedom and democracy, upholding human rights, combating climate change, promoting regional and global peace, security, and the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific and across the globe."

However, the biggest hurdle is now the Seoul-Tokyo leg of trilateral relations with the U.S. which is viewed as the weakest. The relationship between these two partners of the U.S. is at its nadir since their normalization of relations in 1965, due to some past history-related decisions and the ensuing tit-for-tat. No light is in sight yet.

This unfortunate state of affairs has multi-faceted implications on the bilateral, regional and global landscapes during a time of tectonic changes in the world, including U.S.-China strategic competition and many common challenges we face together, such as the North Korean nuclear conundrum.

Korea and Japan have shared values like democracy, human rights and the market economy. Economically, they are highly interdependent still. Security-wise, they are operationally integrated through the U.S. They are close partners in enforcing U.N. resolutions to monitor North Korea's illicit activities, as well as in intelligence cooperation through the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Trilateral Information Sharing Arrangement (TISA).

Both countries are key actors in regional cooperation fora, such as the ASEAN+3 (ASEAN plus Korea, Japan and China), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), among others.

Their strained relationship tends to overshadow all these important aspects and stand in the way of maximizing their full potential, including possible participation in the Quad ― comprised of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India.

In this regard, precious lessons can be drawn from the bold leadership of the past, which turned the ever-worsening relationship into new partnerships. For instance, President Kim Dae-jung and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi adopted in 1998 the landmark Korea-Japan Joint Declaration and 43-point action plans to "overcome their unfortunate history and build a future-oriented relationship based on reconciliation as well as good-neighborly and friendly cooperation."

No doubt, the current impediments between Seoul and Tokyo are very daunting, but they are not insurmountable, as was manifested in 1965, 1998 and 2015. The inauguration of a new Japanese government under the leadership of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida can serve as good momentum for a fresh start to strengthen the weakest leg. Certainly, it takes two to tango. A mutually reinforcing "linchpin" and "cornerstone" are a sine qua non for Pax Pacifica.

Yun Byung-se is a former minister of foreign affairs of South Korea. He is now a board member of the Korea Peace Foundation and a member of several ex-global leaders' forums and taskforces, including the Astana Forum and its Consultative Council, as well as the Task Force on U.S. Allies and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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