Washington Declaration: Restoring The Pacific Balance – Analysis

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s six-day visit to Washington from 26 April–1 May was highly symbolic for bilateral relations and potentially consequential for what the US-ROK relationship would mean in the Indo-Pacific in the next decade. Politically, the visit marked a high with the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the United States (US)-ROK alliance.

The Biden-Yoon meeting also marked the fifth meeting and second summit between the two leaders in less than a year. During his visit to Washington, Yoon addressed a joint session of the US Congress, packed a visit to NASA, and was accompanied by a business delegation which was hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce—dividing attention between politics, business, and technology. However, one of the most important developments which came out of the visit has been the Washington Declaration which extends to the ambit of their bilateral relationship to a global alliance underscored by democratic principles, economic cooperation, and technological advancements and most importantly, the declaration conjoins the changing nature of the threat that the two countries face on the Korean Peninsula with those in the larger Indo-Pacific region.
US motivations

The US motivations behind the Washington Declaration with Seoul are two-pronged. The first has to do with security assurances to one of the most important allies in the Pacific theatre about a strong and credible extended deterrence. This is critical for Washington’s somewhat eroding trust in the region and the growing compulsions of regional countries to hedge between US and China.

The second factor is driven by a consistent attempt by the Biden administration to recentre the Indo-Pacific in the light of the China threat in its policy orientation despite the ongoing war in Europe and a significant diversification of resources and strategic focus for Washington. The Taiwan question is writ large in the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy which requires creating enough bulwark against a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan within the next decade—as estimated in a recent US intelligence assessment. As such, creating a robust alliance architecture in the Pacific is indispensable to US strategy in the Indo-Pacific. If the AUKUS agreement provided non-lethal justification to the US’ growing efforts in the Pacific to re-energise its strategic presence with promises of nuclear-powered submarines, the Washington Declaration carries the nuclear teeth with a ‘full confidence’ of its extended deterrence capabilities.

The persuasions for the Washington Declaration are also embedded in both countries’ commitments to adapt in dealing with new strategic realities in the Indo-Pacific which have four major strands: destabilised Korean Peninsula; the China threat, a broader favourable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific; and ensuring leadership in a new tech-era.

For the Biden administration, strengthening the strategic resilience of the Pacific theatre ranks high in his list of policy compulsions and choices. This has been evident in successive attempts by President Biden in the recent past to not just reassure its Pacific US allies but also to re-energise its alliance and partnerships in the region. The strategic momentum provided to the US efforts in the Pacific by the AUKUS agreement together with Australia and the UK has been complemented by other bilateral and multilateral efforts by Washington to seek a favourable balance in the Pacific theatre particularly and the broader Indo-Pacific region generally.

The decision by the Philippines to allow four more bases by the US troops apart from access to five bases mandated by the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA); a lingering possibility of a strategic partnership with Vietnam and a much-welcomed rapprochement between Japan and South Korea together seek to bolster the US’ security umbrella in the Pacific. Besides, there is a new persuasion to reinvigorate the US’ security relationship with Japan which could significantly impact how a rapidly shifting balance of power in the Pacific due to China’s rise can be restored in Washington’s favour.
What the Washington Declaration means for Seoul and the Indo-Pacific

The decision, taken prima facie, to deter North Korean aggression, comes in the wake of President Yoon declaring earlier in January this year that Seoul may have to proceed with the acquisition of nuclear weapons on its own given the increasing nuclear arsenal and posturing by Pyongyang. Yoon’s suggestion is not a scenario that Washington approves of and is keen to have Seoul continue its commitment to non-proliferation. The Washington Declaration ensures three things for the US—first, it ensures that Seoul does not develop its nuclear weapons and that the US has the decision-making prerogative in the event of any escalation; second, that Seoul’s concerns regarding its vulnerability as a non-nuclear power, sharing a border with a volatile nuclear country are allayed; and third, that the US continues to maintain a strong security presence in the region.

The nuclear threat posed by North Korea has long been a concern for South Korea and the wider Indo-Pacific region with the situation becoming particularly precarious in recent years as North Korea has developed more advanced nuclear weapons and delivery systems. South Korea has been on the front line of this nuclear threat for decades with the threat of nuclear attack being a constant concern for South Koreans. The country has developed a range of defence measures to counter any potential attacks, including early warning systems, missile defence systems, and emergency response plans.

Seoul has quite naturally, welcomed the Declaration—a first of its kind as an obligation in writing—which also allows for the creation of a Nuclear Consultative Group to facilitate collaboration and planning of a nuclear response, should such a situation arise. It strengthens South Korea’s three-axis defence system—Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) operational plan to incapacitate the North Korean leadership in a major conflict, the Kill Chain pre-emptive strike platform and the Korean Air and Missile Defense system (KAMD). Moreover, the Declaration also comes in the wake of the release of Seoul’s Indo-Pacific strategy in December 2022 which paves the way for a more active role for Seoul in the region.

The North Korean nuclear threat also poses a wider security risk to the Indo-Pacific region as well as concerns about nuclear proliferation. Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme has increased tensions with other countries, including Japan and the US. In response, the US has increased its military presence in the region, conducting joint military exercises with South Korea and Japan and deploying its most advanced military hardware to the region. Efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear threat have so far been largely unsuccessful with diplomatic efforts yielding little progress, and economic sanctions having limited impact despite former President Moon’s efforts and former President Trump’s interventions during his meeting with Kim Jong Un in 2018.

Pyongyang has unsurprisingly denounced the Declaration and reiterated the expansion of its capabilities. While sending nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines the movements of which are generally not publicly disclosed and are also being perceived as a symbolic move, the objective here is to deter and reassure. Ironically, the adoption and expansion of security measures would also lead to further insecurities, but measures like the Declaration are indicative of a region that is cautious about the steps it takes while also signalling intentions about not capitulating. For the Indo-Pacific therefore, the Declaration serves as a deterrence not only against North Korea’s unpredictability but also as an added bulwark to existing security mechanisms (with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, for instance) in a region that is more often than not geopolitically tense.