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[Analytics] Collapse of intelligence pact between US, S. Korea and Japan ‘will be symbolic victory for China’

South Korean protesters hold signs saying “No Abe” during a rally demanding the abolition of the General Security of Military Information Agreement. Photo: AP. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Pan Pacific Agency | COMMUICATION AGENCY FOR PACIFICA REGIONS

The possible termination of a military information-sharing pact between South Korea and Japan would be a symbolic victory for China, a security analyst has warned. Lee Jeong-ho specially for the South China Morning Post.

Recent tension between the two countries recently threatened to spill over into the sphere of intelligence after Seoul signalled that it may pull out of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) pact.

The agreement signed in 2016 enables three-way intelligence gathering between the US and its two allies and provides a crucial framework for coping with North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.

But the escalating trade dispute between Seoul and Tokyo, prompted by a dispute about Japan’s colonial legacy, has left the future of the deal in jeopardy as the annual deadline for its renewal looms.

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Ramon Pacheco Pardo, the first Korea chair at the Institute for European Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, said scrapping the pact would help strengthen China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region at the expense of the US.

“It is undeniable that termination of GSOMIA would dent the US-South Korea-Japan alliance. The alliance system in northeast Asia will be weaker, strengthening China in relative terms in the process. “This could embolden China and Russia to strengthen their military cooperation in northeast Asia, said Pardo, a member of the non-governmental EU Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.

“Ending GSOMIA would signal that South Korea and Japan are not ready to follow Washington’s lead in the way the latter would like, given the political capital that successive US administrations spent in convincing both countries to share intelligence.”

But Pardo also stressed that the intelligence alliance was not directly targeting China.

“While it is true that GSOMIA serves to connect the weakest link of the US-South Korea-Japan security triangle, ultimately South Korea’s security posture and the capabilities of each country independently mean that it is difficult to argue that the agreement is a concerted effort to contain China.”

“After all, Beijing does not share any significant information on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes with South Korea, Japan or the US.

“This is not going to change any time soon. So the good news for China would be symbolic rather than substantial.”

Beijing warned on Tuesday that it would take “countermeasures” if the US deployed ground-based missiles in either Japan or South Korea, and Pardo argued that scrapping the intelligence-sharing pact would expose the weaknesses in their co-ordinated approach towards China.

The security deal is automatically renewed every year unless one party decides to pull out. To do so, it must notify the others 90 days before its expiry – a deadline that falls on August 23.

The trade row was sparked by a recent South Korean court ruling that Japanese should compensate individual victims of wartime forced labour. Tokyo believes it settled all necessary compensation under a treaty signed in 1965, but Seoul believes that individual victims’ right to file a claim has not expired.

Last week Japan said it would remove South Korea from its “white list” of countries with preferential trade status. Seoul has threatened to respond in kind, but also warned that it may reconsider whether to renew the intelligence-sharing pact.

Both the US and Japan have said they want the arrangement to continue, but Pardo said the effect of the termination would remain largely symbolic.

South Korea has already been investing in its own satellite and anti-submarine programmes to monitor the North’s activities, while Japan has also been developing its own intelligence programmes.

“This shows that neither South Korea nor Japan wants to rely on each other or third parties, namely the US, when it comes to monitoring North Korea’s military activities,” Pardo said.

But he argued that this behaviour already indicated that the alliance was weakening and suggested that terminating the treaty would increase China’s room for manoeuvre.

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Since the 1990s successive US administrations have pushed for intelligence-sharing arrangements with Japan and South Korea to help build a framework to check Chinese and Russian military expansion in the Pacific.

“Beijing and Moscow are clearly moving in the direction of closer cooperation anyway. GSOMIA or not, military cooperation will continue … as long as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin lead each country and most probably even beyond then,” Pardo said.

China and Russia flexed their muscles in the region last month as the trade dispute between the two key allies intensified.

Russian and Chinese long-range military aircraft conducted their first-ever joint air patrol over the Sea of Japan – also known as the East Sea – and the East China Sea.

“The East Asian security landscape would be reshaped insofar that China, North Korea and Russia would see that their main opponent in the region – the US – is unable to convince its two key allies, South Korea and Japan, to cooperate on a key issue,” Pardo said.

“The current dispute between South Korea and Japan will need a negotiated solution … In any case, Japan will have to learn to live with the fact that former colonisers will, from time to time, receive criticism by many of their former colonies, criticism that sometimes will escalate.

“It happens to former European colonial powers, for example, and it is only logical because the interpretation of the past is always in flux.”

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