U.S.-Japan-R.O.K. Trilateral Relationship

Remarks
Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Brookings Institution
Washington, DC
March 29, 2016


Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be back at Brookings—and I have to tell you that it is beginning to feel like a second home.

Just yesterday, Strobe and I spent some time talking with colleagues about the future of Europe. Over the last year, as Strobe mentioned, I’ve spoken with the Brookings community on everything from countering violent extremism to upholding the global order. All in all, it’s been a pretty slow and quiet year. But I thank you for the incredible hospitality you have shown to me and the Administration.

I have been in government, and in foreign policy, for more than two decades now, and I can confidently say that the United States is more deeply engaged in more ways, in more places, than ever before.

This morning, what I’d like to focus on is one pillar of that engagement, one pillar of that leadership, and that is our nation’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and—at the heart of that strategy—an increasingly strong trilateral relationship with two of our greatest allies and closest friends, Japan and the Republic of Korea.

Just before I started at the State Department a little over a year ago after six years in the White House, I asked President Obama what he most wanted me to focus on as I moved over to State. And his answer was immediate: “Asia.”

Then when I got to State, I asked Secretary Kerry the same question, and he gave me the same answer, which is always a very good sign. Asia.

Their charge reflected the importance that President Obama has attached to the region since his very first day in office.

Having inherited a nation immersed in the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, President Obama recognized that America’s presence in the Asia-Pacific was not merely peripheral to our future prosperity and security—it was indispensable.

Nowhere in the world were our economic and strategic opportunities clearer or more compelling than in the Asia-Pacific—home to three of our top ten trading partners, five of the seven of our defense treaty allies, and some of the most wired and innovative people in the world.

As America’s first Pacific leader, President Obama understood that the rise of Asia, which had already done so much to lift millions out of poverty, would help define this new century. But by which rules, by which means, to what ends—those were the important questions to answer.

Over the last seven years, we have rebalanced to Asia by deepening our ties and strengthening a rules-based, norms-based, institutions-based order that is addressing regional and, increasingly, global challenges.

We have deepened our diplomatic ties—investing in a new geometry of bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral relations to encourage cooperation among and between allies and partners.

We have reinvested in our core alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia; we’ve reenergized partnerships from India to Indonesia; and we’ve forged new relations with Burma and Vietnam, as these nations start to turn the page on the past and chart a new course ahead to the future.

And even as we build new partnerships, we have also deepened our commitment to the U.S.-Australia-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, a model engagement for the region since it was first established in 2002.

Defying a downward spiral of rivalry, we have built a relationship with China defined by broader and deeper practical cooperation on global challenges and, at the same time, direct and very frank discussions on areas of real disagreement. We have encouraged China to contribute more—to apply its significant capabilities as a rising economic and political power to help meet the needs in the international community, from peacekeeping to public health.

We have stood up for our values—for the basic rights and freedoms of individuals throughout the region. This past year, we saw historic elections as the people of Burma chose their leader freely—an almost unthinkable outcome after more than 50 years of military rule. And in January, the people of Taiwan showed the world again what a mature, Chinese-speaking democracy looks like.

Under President Obama’s leadership, we have also sustained and increased engagement with institutions of the region like the East Asia Summit, APEC, and ASEAN—including by sending our first dedicated Ambassador to ASEAN.

These important forums for promoting collective action and the facilitating the peaceful resolution of differences—these organizations advance a regional economic, political, and security architecture in which the United States is vital and permanent player.

Another pillar of the rebalance is our security ties, and those too have deepened—deploying 60 percent of our Navy in the region by the end of the decade, including some of our most advanced capabilities. We do this in order to reinforce an environment of peace and stability that has enabled seven decades of growth and provided value far greater than its cost.

For the first time in nearly two decades, we’ve updated the guidelines for our defense cooperation with Japan so that our forces will have the flexibility to face 21st century challenges. We have also concluded new host nation support agreements with both Japan and the Republic of Korea, reinforcing these alliances and underscoring our shared commitment to a continuing U.S. presence in the region. And of course we signed a landmark Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines to give our forces access to key facilities and allow our militaries to work even more closely together.

Our efforts also include engaging in exercises with new partners, like Vietnam, and new programs with long-standing allies, like our rotational force program with Australia.

The reason that we are the region’s preferred security partner—the reason we are invited in and invited back—is not merely because of the professionalism of our armed forces. It is because, strong as we are, the United States accepts that the same rules apply to us as apply to all. We support the rule of law, even when it’s not convenient.

A third part of the rebalance of course is the economic pillar, and there too we have significantly deepened our ties—implementing a free trade agreement with Korea, advancing negotiations on a Bilateral Investment Treaty with China, and of course securing the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership that will bring 40 percent of the global economy behind the highest standards for labor, the environment, and intellectual property rights.

I was actually in northeast Asia when the agreement was concluded, and I happened to be in Tokyo on that very day. The excitement that I encountered among my counterparts was almost palpable; I think a reflection of the tremendous effort that had gone in to getting us to that day and also an indication of Prime Minister Abe’s leadership in helping us arrive at that destination.

The next day, coincidentally, I was in Seoul, and there our friends were expressing tremendous enthusiasm and interest about joining, which is something that we welcome

The day after that I found myself in Beijing, and there was a manifest turn from indifference to genuine curiosity – and even interest. Even a state-affiliated newspaper published an article highlighting the potential benefits of TPP for China.

Finally, as part of this rebalance, we have deepened our people-to-people ties—expanding educational and exchange opportunities for scholars and innovators, creating the YSEALI community, now 50,000 strong, to connect dynamic young people throughout ASEAN to the United States and to each other.

One of the highlights for the President, for the Secretary, for me as we travel throughout the region is spending time with these young people. I’ve been deeply impressed by their sophistication, their ingenuity, their global perspective.

Just one example. In Jakarta, I visited a progressive Islamic religious school where girls learned alongside boys and the curriculum represents Indonesia’s proud tradition of faith, tolerance, and critical thinking. We had time for questions afterward, and, I still remember to this day, these young men and women, 15 and 16 years old, standing up and asking me about everything from the situation in Egypt, to the plight of the Rohingya, to American leadership in the world today. I was pretty much ready to hand my job over to them. It was quite extraordinary, and this is something that we come across time and time again in our engagement with young people throughout the region.

So all of these efforts, which have informed the substance and vitality of the rebalance, would not be possible without the foundation of our core alliances with the Republic of Korea and Japan.

Last fall, the top twelve baseball teams in the world competed in an international baseball tournament in Taiwan and Japan. After all the pitches were thrown and the dust settled over the diamond, three countries emerged on top: Korea, the United States, and Japan.

For our nations, a love of baseball is just the beginning of all that we share.

We are bound by currents of water and history… by ties of trade and investment… by common interests for our security… and, perhaps most important of all, by an agreement on the principles that have enabled the success of our own nations—democracy, human rights, open markets, and the paramount importance of rule-of-law.

Whether on the frontier of opportunity or in the shadow of challenge, we look to lead in concert with our two closest allies.

Together, we are investing in global health security—bringing the capabilities and technologies of Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo to bear on transnational threats like Ebola or Zika.

Together, we have built an unprecedented information-sharing arrangement to help us collectively deter and respond to crisis.

Together, we are taking steps to counter the spread of violent extremism as members of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.

On these priorities and many more, it seems only logical that our three countries would work together cooperatively. But, as many of you know, it has never been that easy. At times, the real and very painful legacies of history have created a challenging environment for the robust trilateral partnership that our shared values and aspirations call for.

This past year, 2015, was one of deep reflection on these difficult issues. Last September, we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Last June, Korea and Japan marked the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties.

And at the end of the year, the governments of the Republic of Korea and Japan—under the leadership of President Park and Prime Minister Abe—forged a historic agreement on the sensitive issue of comfort women. Their courageous statecraft has helped create space for a continued process of healing and reconciliation and opened the door to greater bilateral and trilateral collaboration.

In support of these stronger ties, I have been honored to convene the first-ever trilateral meetings at my level, which have proved productive on a great range of issues, and it is a process that we will continue throughout the remainder of this year.

Given the scale and complexity of the global challenges that we face, the growing prominence of our trilateral partnership comes not a moment too soon. When our countries act together, our impact is magnified. When our countries speak together on matters of principles, our message is amplified.

When the three countries that represent 30 percent of global GDP insist on expanding economic opportunities for women, the world takes note.

When three of the most wired societies emphasize the importance of a free and open internet and advocate for principles of state behavior in cyberspace, the world pays heed.

And when three leading donors of humanitarian and development aid insist on standards of sustainability and transparency, the world listens.

Simply put, our trilateral partnership is a force multiplier for good.

But it is not enough to merely have the capability for collective action. We have to cultivate a partnership that matters not only to our governments but the people our governments represent—a partnership that engages business, civil society, and young people especially. By yielding indispensable benefits to more of these stakeholders in all three of our countries, we create a new generation of advocates for maintaining a strong trilateral partnership, even when the winds of the region are blowing in the opposite direction.

We have to articulate a vision for long-term trilateral cooperation that proves its centrality to the defense of our shared interests and preservation of our shared ideals. We are focused on this in three ways.

First, we are building a trilateral relationship that is strategic in value.

Today, we share a common purpose in addressing the region’s most acute threat: North Korea. On a recent trip to northeast Asia, I was honored to share a meal with Korean and American soldiers who serve side-by-side every day, standing sentry along the DMZ—literally embodiment of our alliance.

Together with Japan and the Republic of Korea, we have tried to show North Korea that a different future is possible…. if it refrains from actions that threaten regional peace and security. If it abandons destabilizing provocations. If it ceases its deplorable human rights violations. And if it fulfills its denuclearization obligations.

Our own unity and determination in the face of the challenge posed by North Korea has played a vital and, indeed, stabilizing role in the region. We will continue to increase the costs on North Korea until it comes into compliance with its international obligations. And we will take every necessary step to protect our people from the threat posed by its nuclear and missile programs.

In fact, there is no better indication of the strategic priority of our trilateral relationship than the fact that Strobe alluded to earlier—that President Obama will meet with President Park and Prime Minister Abe just two days from now during the Nuclear Security Summit here in Washington. It is the second trilat our leaders have convened in as many years—further evidence of its growing importance and vitality.

Second, as we think about this trilateral partnership, we are building one that is complementary in nature.

We welcome any kind of flexible geometry of collaboration among countries that share important goals, including steps towards greater China-Korea-Japan cooperation and the growing unity of the ASEAN community. That is also why we’re shaping an inclusive agenda for our trilateral partnership that helps advance common understanding and regional integration through efforts like coordinating disaster response plans and arranging overlapping youth exchange programs.

Constructive relationships in Asia—as in any part of the world—serve the interests of all of us by shaping a region where the legitimate rights of every state—no matter how big, no matter how small—are honored… where countries come to each other’s aid in times of disaster or crisis…where borders are respected and countries cooperate to prevent small disputes from growing larger… where disagreements are settled openly, peacefully, and in accordance with the rule of law…and a region where the human rights of each and every person are fully respected.

Third and finally, we are building a trilateral partnership that is global in scope.

The environment that we live in is more fluid, more fraught with complexity than ever before, as violent extremists inflict carnage from Brussels to Ankara to Lahore… as epidemics cut across borders and hackers across firewalls…as the health of our oceans deteriorates—draining life from our economies and from the planet.

Against these challenges, our success will be determined by our ability to strengthen and update a rules-based global order dedicated to progress of every nation. Few countries have as much to contribute in upholding this system and in advancing and reforming it as our three—as vibrant democracies deeply invested in its principles and norms and as economic leaders for sustainable growth and game-changing innovation.

That is why the practical agenda for our trilateral relationship includes priorities from fighting climate change to empowering women and girls to countering violent extremism.

It’s why we are working together in the uncharted frontiers of cyber-space and outer-space, where the potential for danger and miscalculation is as great as the possibilities for exploration and discovery. We share a common desire to spur opportunity, while also sustaining stability, and the unity of our voices is essential in reinforcing peacetime cyber norms and ensuring the peaceful uses of outer space.

It’s why our partnership is engaged on the high seas, an economic lifeline for all three of our countries. The unity of our actions is essential to enforcing the right of all countries to unimpeded commerce and the freedom of navigation and overflight. It is essential to supporting rules-based frameworks like Codes of Conduct and setting clear, predictable, binding rules of the road. And it is key to developing ambitious trilateral approaches to counter illegal fishing and address marine pollution.

And together, finally, our partnership is advancing global development—where the unity of our efforts to foster growth and expand opportunity can help the world meet the sustainable development goals and finally eradicate the scourge of extreme poverty.

Rooted in our deepest values, our trilateral partnership reflects the great depth of all that we share: a belief in freedom, a respect for the rules, and an unyielding desire to win at baseball.

Today, we are at a pivotal moment in our growth as partners in a trilateral partnership. We can choose to rest on all that we have accomplished, to stay within bounds of what is comfortable and familiar. But there’s really nothing in our history, nothing in our spirits, nothing in our aspirations that indicates that our three nations would settle for such a path.

Ours is a major-league partnership in a very high-stakes season—a pillar of stability and security, a beacon of opportunity, and a force for global good.

Seven years after President Obama rebalanced our sights on the Asia-Pacific, we are proud leaders of a region increasingly bound by common ideals, shared prosperity, and a collective sense of global responsibility.

I am grateful to all those in Japan, the Republic of Korea, and here in the United States, including many people in this room, for their work to infuse this partnership with energy, with meaning, with strength, and a clear path forward to seize its full potential.

Thank you very much.