The Case for U.S.-Japan-ROK Cooperation on Democracy Support in the Indo-Pacific Region

When the United States, Japan, and South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK) met with other democracies in June 2021 to outline a shared G7 agenda, they committed to increasing cooperation on support for democracy. This commitment manifests not only in multilateral initiatives such as the G7 but also in the foreign policy strategies of the United States and its two key democratic allies in Northeast Asia. The 2021 G7 Open Societies Statement, as well as U.S.-Japan, U.S.-ROK, and U.S.-Japan-ROK meeting statements, all point to the need for cooperation based on shared democratic values and norms. Furthermore, the Biden administration is emphasizing the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral relationship as a strategic priority. Given these shared goals, coordination on democracy support should feature more prominently in the trilateral agenda.

Authoritarian states are increasingly threatening the liberal international order that has underwritten peace and prosperity in Asia for decades. Considering this regional reality, the strategic importance of support for democracy in the Indo-Pacific to the United States, Japan, and South Korea has never been clearer. The United States, Japan, and South Korea are engaged in regional projects on democracy support, but they are not coordinated at the trilateral level. There is great potential for these three leading democracies to strengthen democratic norms, promote good governance, and facilitate networking among like-minded states in the region. Current sensitivities in Japan-ROK relations notwithstanding, democracy support is a shared strategic interest and should be incorporated as a key agenda item for U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation. 

Trilateral Coordination in a Historical Context

U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation originally evolved out of shared security concerns regarding North Korea. The collapse of the Soviet Union shifted Japan’s focus away from the Soviet Union to North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons program, also a major security threat for South Korea. The Trilateral Coordination Oversight Group (TCOG), launched in 1999, institutionalized a coordination mechanism between the United States, Japan, and South Korea on North Korean nuclear weapons development. Since the creation of the TCOG, trilateral cooperation has evolved to include policy coordination through trilateral ministerial meetings, joint military exercises, and intelligence sharing. Despite diplomatic and historical issues between Japan and South Korea, trilateral cooperation has provided a successful framework for coordination in the security domain and more recently in nontraditional areas such as global health and climate change.

However, with current Japan-ROK relations at a historic low, trilateral cooperation on even security issues has become challenging. Recently, sensitivities over historical and territorial issues have spilled over into the diplomatic, economic, and security domains. This downward spiral in bilateral relations has negatively impacted trilateral coordination, as emphasized by the failure to hold a meeting between President Biden, former prime minister Suga, and President Moon on the sidelines of the G7 summit back in June. However, trilateral dialogue has taken place at the ministerial and vice-ministerial levels. Japan-ROK tensions notwithstanding, it is important to think creatively about ways to facilitate trilateral coordination that reflects the respective strategies of the three countries. Promoting common democratic values could serve as one pillar of the trilateral agenda.  

Aligning U.S., Japanese, and South Korean Democracy Support

Rising authoritarianism and democratic backsliding threaten the stability of the Indo-Pacific region, making U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation on democracy support more important than ever. China’s rise and the weakening of liberal democracy within the region are key drivers for democracy support frameworks in Asia. Elite corruption, inequality, domestic polarization, and decreased space for civil society are eroding the quality of democracy across the region. Alongside these trends, China is attempting to interfere with the policies of democratic countries through military, political, and economic coercion. For example, Japan and South Korea felt this pressure acutely during the 2010 ban on rare earth element exports and 2016 THAAD dispute respectively. Public opinion in the United States, Japan, and South Korea also reflects these growing concerns regarding Chinese behavior and its implications for the liberal international order.

CSIS surveys of foreign policy experts in Asia have found robust support in Japan and South Korea for promoting democratic values. Indeed, these values feature prominently in all three countries’ foreign policies, especially in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision and the New Southern Policy (NSP). FOIP, the United States and Japan’s guiding strategic concept for the Indo-Pacific, emphasizes several of the building blocks of democracy such as the rule of law, good governance, human rights, economic prosperity, regional peace and stability, and women’s empowerment. South Korea’s NSP aligns closely with the FOIP’s promotion of democracy with a “people pillar” that highlights good governance and support for civil society. The United States is cooperating with South Korea on initiatives concerning human resource development, anti-corruption, and women’s empowerment. While the United States and Japan are not cooperating explicitly on democracy support projects, their cooperation in the fields of energy, data governance, and quality infrastructure are all premised upon democratic values of fairness, openness, and transparency.

Similarities also exist in the respective official development assistance (ODA) strategies of all three countries. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) all provide funding in the fields of legal and judicial development and women’s empowerment. In 2019, Japan and South Korea provided democracy-related ODA (“Government and Civil Society – general”) totaling $135.295 million and $40.649 million, respectively, to 19 Asian countries. The United States dedicated almost a third of its $3 billion contribution in democracy-related ODA that year ($943.986 million) to those same Asian countries. In the multilateral arena, all three countries are among the top donors to the United Nations Democracy Fund, together accounting for roughly 40 percent of cumulative funding since 2005. Given these overlapping priority areas, there is great potential to coordinate a trilateral strategy for democracy support.

Recommended Avenues for Trilateral Cooperation

The authors recommend that the United States, Japan, and South Korea cooperate in the following issue areas: 

Build Capacity in Legal and Judicial Systems

Legal and judicial development is a key tenet of democracy support, as strong and independent judicial institutions are essential for functioning democracies. Judicial reform assistance features heavily in Japan’s support for democracy, and Japan has gained substantial expertise in this area since the 1990s. In 2019, Japanese ODA to developing countries for legal and judicial development totaled $129.373 million, with an overwhelming majority going to countries in South and Southeast Asia. Through ODA, JICA supports the drafting of civil, criminal, and commercial codes; organizes seminars and training for judicial personnel; dispatches Japanese experts to recipient countries; and hosts study visits to Japan. Similarly, South Korea supports building fair judicial systems in its country partnership strategy for Myanmar, as well as training and capacity building for judges in its country partnership strategy for Vietnam. In addition, South Korea has already committed $12 million from 2019 to 2023 for “increased transparency in legal procedures and quality of court rulings in Vietnam.” As for the United States, in 2019 ODA to Asia (including the Middle East) for legal and judicial development totaled $268.549 million. Within USAID, the Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DRG) serves as the hub for global programming on democracy and works with both governments and civil society to implement legal and judicial reform through rule of law programs. 

The United States, Japan, and South Korea should coordinate their efforts to support legal and judicial development, especially in Southeast Asia. The United States and Japan have previously identified training programs as a key area for bilateral cooperation on promoting democracy. While the United States and South Korea feature training programs in their ODA strategies, the two countries would benefit from Japan’s specialized expertise in training judicial personnel. Japan and South Korea would benefit from U.S. expertise in working with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the region, as NGOs can help monitor the results of these trilateral programs. Though Japan assists NGOs through the United Nations, its lack of direct partnerships with local NGOs arguably diminishes the impact of its ODA at the grassroots level. In addition, South Korea has recently been attempting to implement a more deliberate grassroots approach to its ODA, and this could be an opportunity to further relationships with local NGOs in Southeast Asia. Trilateral cooperation will allow the three countries to share their best practices for judicial system reform and combine their resources more effectively, improving upon each countries’ individual efforts in the region.  

Empower Women and Promote Gender Equality

As noted in the G7 and U.S.-ROK joint statements, women’s empowerment enables long-term stability and economic growth and is central to the quality and integrity of democratic practice and governance. At the multilateral level, all three countries support this goal at the United Nations, G20, and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forums. For example, in 2020 Japan was the sixth-largest total government contributor to UN Women, the UN organization dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment. There have also been trilateral efforts, such as the 2016 U.S.-Japan-ROK Women’s Empowerment Trilateral Forum. The countries’ second meeting of the trilateral forum in October 2020 focused specifically on promoting women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and reaffirmed trilateral cooperation in this area. In addition to this forum, Japan and South Korea can further bolster U.S. efforts as part of the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) initiative. The W-GDP is the first-ever U.S. whole-of-government effort to advance global women’s economic empowerment. Under the W-GDP, South Korea and the United States are cooperating bilaterally to promote women’s empowerment by leveraging the Providing Opportunities for Women’s Economic Rise (POWER) Initiative, which supports women as entrepreneurs and business leaders. Trilaterally coordinating efforts through POWER would present an opportunity to pool resources and align the three countries’ individual efforts on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Partner with Indonesia

Southeast Asia’s largest democracy, Indonesia, is an important partner for coordinating democracy support in the Indo-Pacific. Indonesia has been instrumental in supporting democratic rules and norms in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), exemplified by its strong advocacy for the inclusion of commitments on democracy, good governance, the rule of law, and human rights in the 2007 ASEAN charter. The United States, Japan, and South Korea have each individually strengthened ties with Indonesia by reconfirming shared values and visions for a free and open Indo-Pacific region, bolstering security ties, and incorporating new areas of collaboration such as cybersecurity respectively. Cooperation on democracy support constitutes another area of potential engagement.  

Indonesia’s signature democracy initiative, the Bali Democracy Forum (BDF), plays an important convening role as the “sole platform for intergovernmental dialogue and cooperation in political development in Asia.” Founded in 2008, the BDF aims to foster democracy, human rights, equality, and mutual respect. The inclusive nature of the forum, which includes China, is an important pillar of Indonesian democracy. The 13th meeting of the BDF in December 2020 addressed the theme of “Democracy and the Covid-19 Pandemic” and recognized the need for multilateral cooperation on democracy in the face of global crises.

Holding a dialogue on democratic best practices with Indonesia on the sidelines of the BDF could present an opportunity to learn more about Southeast Asian perspectives and help the United States, Japan, and South Korea refine their respective strategies. Indonesia also supports initiatives on judicial reform and women’s empowerment and works in partnership with NGOs in other Indo-Pacific countries, suggesting potential for coordination that would allow for greater resource utilization and impact based on shared experiences with democracy support in the region.


The United States, Japan, and South Korea are aligned strategically on the importance of democracy support, as evidenced by joint statements on shared interests in maintaining democratic norms as well as their respective ODA strategies. Despite current tensions in Japan-ROK relations, shared values and strategic alignment on the importance of democracy offer a solid foundation for reinvigorating trilateral cooperation. As the Biden administration prepares for a global summit for democracy, it will need support from not only European partners, but also Asian allies like Japan and South Korea whose expertise and shared commitment to democratic rules and norms can help develop a network of democratic partnership across the Indo-Pacific region.  

Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Hannah Fodale is an associate fellow with the Japan Chair at CSIS. Jada Fraser was a part-time research assistant with the Japan Chair from 2020 to 2021. 

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jada Fraser

Former Research Assistant, Japan Chair

Hannah Fodale

Former Associate Fellow, Japan Chair