A perilous security environment

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 8 Aug 2023

While the US has said that it does not seek conflict with China, the strategic and military alliances it has been building in the Indo-Pacific do not reflect this peaceful policy.


On 18 August, US President Joe Biden will hold a trilateral summit meeting at Camp David with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

According to a White House statement, the three leaders will reaffirm their strong bonds of friendship and their ironclad alliances. They will discuss expanding trilateral cooperation across the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, including to address the continued threat posed by North Korea, and to strengthen ties with the ASEAN group of nations and the Pacific Islands.

The trilateral summit will advance a shared vision for addressing global and regional security challenges and the promotion of what the statement calls the “rules-based international order.”

The Camp David meeting comes amid heightened tensions in the Korean Peninsula, the Sea of Japan, the South China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait. It comes a few months after an US-South Korean Summit meeting in Washington in April and a Japanese-South Korean Summit in Tokyo on 16 March, the first in 12 years.

In the context of the US-South Korean Summit, the two sides adopted the Washington Declaration on 26 April to mark the 70th anniversary of the US-ROK (Republic of Korea) Alliance. In commemoration of this occasion, the two presidents committed themselves to developing an ever-stronger mutual defence relationship and reaffirmed their commitment to the combined defence posture under the US-ROK Mutual Defence Treaty.

Biden reaffirmed that any nuclear attack by North Korea against the South would be met with a “swift, overwhelming, and decisive response.”

The Washington Declaration included a pledge by the US whereby South Korea would have a central role in the strategic planning of a nuclear-response strategy during a potential conflict with the North in exchange for South Korea dropping any plans for developing a nuclear arms programme. In addition, the two allies also initiated a Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG).

The US and Japanese governments held an extended deterrence dialogue at the Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri in the US on 26-27 June. This dialogue goes back to 2010 and aims at sustaining and enhancing the extended deterrence that represents the core of the US-Japanese Alliance.

During the dialogue, the US committed itself to increasing the visibility of US strategic assets. The two delegations shared assessments of the regional security environment and reviewed conventional and nuclear capabilities contributing to “regional deterrence.” As part of that visibility, a US nuclear submarine visited a South Korean port a couple of weeks ago for the first time in four decades, a visit that the North Koreans considered highly provocative and as a direct threat to their national security.

It is expected that during the trilateral summit meeting at Camp David the leaders of the US, South Korea, and Japan will emphasise their shared visions of the security threats in the Indo-Pacific region that emanate from North Korea, China, and Russia.

I suppose that the main concerns on their minds will be twofold. The first is the nuclear and ballistic missiles capabilities of North Korea. And the second is the growing military cooperation between China and Russia in the Pacific. There will also be the way the three powers perceive the growing assertiveness of Chinese foreign policy, particularly vis-à-vis Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

For the last three years, the Biden administration has followed a strategy of the creeping containment of China in the Indo-Pacific region, to the extent that it has convinced NATO to extend its outreach to the region and to identify China as a competitor and a “threat” at the Madrid NATO Summit meeting in June 2022 to what the Western powers call the “rules-based international order,” rules in place under the Western hegemony of the post-World War II international system.

The trilateral alliance is an example of the strategic-military belt that the US administration has extended to the Indo-Pacific region that now includes the AUKUS Alliance (Australia, the UK, and the US) and the QUAD (the US, India, Japan, and Australia). As mentioned earlier, the US has brought in the European countries, as members of NATO, in its military encirclement of China.

It goes without saying that this US global strategy serves US security interests as a superpower that has been trying, again and again, to remain the only superpower that steers the international system without showing any willingness to cooperate with other great powers like China.

It is true that the US president and senior officials of his administration have kept on saying that they do not seek conflict with China, but rather to manage “competition” instead with Beijing. However, the strategic and military alliances that Washington has been building up in the Indo-Pacific region over the last three years have yet to reflect such a measured vision.

It is doubtful that the trilateral summit at Camp David ten days from now will prove otherwise. The visit of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS Nimitz and its Carrier Strike Group 11 to the Busan Naval Base in South Korea in March was also a case in point.

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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