Partnerships

Disputes Between U.S. Allies Hinder Indo-Pacific Security Cooperation

Aug. 28, 2019 | BY C. Todd Lopez

South Korea's announcement that it will not renew an information-sharing agreement with Japan when it expires in November complicates the ability of the United States to continue its trilateral security cooperation with both countries, a senior Defense Department official said.

South Korea announced last week that it would not renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, with Japan. The agreement expires Nov. 22, and both countries announced this week that they had removed each other from their trusted trade partner "white lists."

"It is remarkable how quickly political disputes can push aside discussion of our cooperation and our future progress that our countries seek to accomplish," said Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, during a discussion today at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Military personnel wearing gas masks perform operations on waterborne craft.
Bridge Connection
U.S. Army soldiers maneuver and connect a section of an improved ribbon bridge during a rafting exercise on the Namhan River in South Korea, Feb. 27, 2019.
Photo By: Army Spc. Adeline Witherspoon
VIRIN: 190227-A-YS961-440Y

The GSOMIA was a point of discussion when he and Defense  Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper visited South Korea and Japan earlier this month, Schriver said. "But in terms of the actual decision to not renew," he added, "we were not forewarned."

The existing agreement spells out a more efficient way for Japan, South Korea and the United States to communicate critical security information to each other, Schriver said. One way it benefits the United States, he said, is that it allows Japan and South Korea to communicate directly with each other, ensuring the United States isn't needed as a middleman to facilitate communications. The benefit to South Korea and Japan, he said, is the increased efficiency of communication between the neighboring countries.

Two men in military uniform stand near a lectern. Behind them are the U.S. flag and the Japanese flag.
Keen Sword Remarks
Japanese Rear Adm. Hiroshi Egawa, commander of Escort Flotilla 1, and U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Karl O. Thomas, commander of Task Force 70, hold a news conference with Japanese media aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan during Keen Sword 2019 In the Philippine Sea, Nov. 3, 2018.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Richard L.J. Gourley
VIRIN: 181103-N-FN963-2070Y

"GSOMIA is an agreement through which they can share information directly — sensitive intelligence information — and do so in a timely way, as fast as technology can move information," Schriver said. "In the complex security environment we are in, often times, time is of the essence. So when you are looking at potential missile launches, or you are looking at other activity, you don't want a cumbersome, unwieldy process for information sharing, which is what we had before, with us in the middle, passing information back and forth between the two parties, but not between one another."

Plenty of scenarios of interest to both Japanese and South Korean security don't involve the United States, Schriver noted, making an agreement like GSOMIA useful.

In counterpiracy operations, for example, should South Korea get information about a threat to a Japanese aircraft, or vice versa, time is of the essence, he said, and having to relay the information from one to the other via the United States would take up valuable time.

Military personnel with rifles crawl onto a beach from the water.
Beach Crawl
U.S. and South Korean Marines practice beach insertion after conducting helocast training in a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 462 during the Korean Marine Exchange Program in South Korea, July 16, 2019.
Photo By: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Ethan M. LeBlanc
VIRIN: 190724-M-XJ088-1012

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon has said it's possible for his nation to reenter the GSOMIA. Schriver said if that doesn't happen, it will damage security cooperation among the United States, Japan and South Korea.

If the agreement is terminated, he said, "it means that the ability to share information and intelligence among the three parties becomes more cumbersome and unwieldy, and in the security environment we are operating in, that adds risk and is suboptimal." 

Our three countries are resilient, and we share common security objectives."
Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs

"When you are looking at challenges ranging from ballistic missiles to cyber and space, all these things, we are much better off when we are removing obstacles and facilitating the exchange of information, not making it more difficult," he said.

Schriver said the only winners when Japan and South Korea don't cooperate are their competitors.

Both nations, he said, share a variety of common security goals, including a commitment to a fully verified denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Both nations are also active participants and leaders in the Proliferation Security Initiative, an international effort to halt the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, missiles and other similar materials. Both continue to cooperate with the United States to support efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism. Both are working to prevent piracy in the Indian Ocean, and both continue to participate in either joint or trilateral military exercises with the United States.

A large military vehicle plows through the water and approaches a beach.
Talisman Approach
A Japanese Self Defense Force amphibious assault vehicle drives onto Langham Beach in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in central Queensland, Australia, as part of Exercise Talisman Sabre, July 24, 2019.
Photo By: Marine Corps 1st Lt. Brett Vannier
VIRIN: 190724-Z-TK851-0003

"In the immediate near term, we do call on the Republic of Korea to recommit to GSOMIA and to renew that agreement, and we also call on both sides to participate in meaningful dialogue to address their differences," Schriver said. "Meaningful dialogue means coming to the table with a mindset of problem solving, not a mindset of airing grievances further."

Northeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific region and the world will be safer only when the United States, Japan and South Korea work together in solidarity, Schriver said.

"Our three countries are resilient, and we share common security objectives. And our trilateral defense cooperation has withstood the test of time to meet our security challenges and will do so in the future, should all three countries commit to it," he said.