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Freedom Edge: US Bolsters Security Partnerships with Asian Allies

The US, Japan and South Korea on Saturday wrapped up their first multidomain exercise, Freedom Edge, in the East China Sea, reported the Associated Press (AP).

This trilateral exercise builds on Washington’s efforts to strengthen its security and defense partnerships with key allies in Asia amid the growing threats posed by China and North Korea.

Freedom Edge Exercise

The trilateral multidomain exercise, which started on June 27, featured multiple ships and aircraft from Japan, South Korea and the US. It focused on cooperative Ballistic Missile Defense, Air Defense, Anti-Submarine Warfare, Search and Rescue, Maritime Interdiction, and Defensive Cyber training.

Freedom Edge: US Bolsters Security Partnerships with Asian Allies
US fighter jet prepares to take off the Roosevelt aircraft carrier

Freedom Edge, announced at the Camp David Summit in August 2023 and at the Japan, South Korea, and US defense ministerial meeting during the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, reflects the three countries’ will to foster trilateral operability and protect freedom for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, including the Korean peninsula.

For this purpose, the US, Japan and South Korea will continue to expand Freedom Edge exercise in the coming years.

Enhancing Interoperability

One of the Freedom Edge exercise’s goals is to improve the countries’ abilities to share missile warnings. This has become of increasing importance given North Korea’s testing of more sophisticated systems.

According to the Singapore-based analyst, Ridzwan Rahmat, Japan and South Korea are the only US partners in the region, aside from Australia, whose militaries can integrate operations with the US. For example, if South Korea detected a target, it could quickly pass on details and Japanese or American counterparts could respond.

“That’s the kind of interoperability that is involved in a typical war scenario. For trilateral exercises like this the intention is to develop the interoperability between the three armed forces so that they can fight better as a cohesive fighting force,” Rahmat told AP.

Potential Risks

These drills, however, could trigger tensions in the region. China considers the region as its sphere of influence and frequently denounce such exercises. In a similar vein, North Korea criticized the arrival of the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier group in the port of Busan, which hosts Seoul’s navy headquarters and Gimhae Air Base, as “provocative” and “dangerous.”

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visited the Roosevelt, which participated in Freedom Edge, in Busan. He is the first sitting South Korean president to board a US aircraft carrier since 1994.

Freedom Edge: US Bolsters Security Partnerships with Asian Allies
Yoon Suk Yeol giving remarks aboard the Roosevelt aircraft carrier

In response, North Korea tested what it claimed to be a “multiwarhead missile,” the first launch of such weapon, if confirmed. However, a joint analysis by South Korean and US authorities assessed that the launch failed, according to South Korea’s military.

Bolstering Alliances

The relations between Japan and South Korea have been strained due to the former’s occupation of Korea before and during World War II. But Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have been working to improve relations.

Similarly, both countries’ relations with Washington have been tense under former US President Donald Trump. However, President Joe Biden administration has been working to increase cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo.

Euan Graham, a defense analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said: “It’s obviously a US attempt to try and mesh their alliances as positively as possible, not just given the challenge of their adversaries, but also the uncertainty around a second Trump administration. They’re trying to institutionalize as many of these habits of cooperation while they can.”

Increasing Threats

The region is seeing rising tensions with North Korea and China. Pyongyang is increasing the pace of its weapons program, despite international sanctions. Meanwhile, China has embarked on a massive military buildup of its nuclear and conventional weapons. It has also become the world’s second largest navy.

Moreover, China claims the entire island of Taiwan as its own territory and has threatened to take it by force, if necessary, in what it calls “reunification.” It also claims the entirety of the South China Sea and has increased its military presence there.

Both countries have fostered their ties with Russia and have been among Moscow’s closest allies during its war against Ukraine. In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un signed a mutual defense pact. In May, Putin made a state visit to China, emphasizing the two countries’ strategic ties.

American Advantage

Despite being the world’s second largest navy, China has only three aircraft carriers compared to 11 carriers in the US fleet. But Beijing’s main focus is the nearby waters of the Indo-Pacific, whereas Washington’s naval assets are spread worldwide as part of its global focus. After Freedom Edge exercise, USS Theodore Roosevelt will head to the Middle East to help protect ships against Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.

Freedom Edge: US Bolsters Security Partnerships with Asian Allies
A US F-18 fighter in the hanger of the Roosevelt carrier

That gives security partnerships increased significance, not only with Japan and South Korea, but also with countries like Australia, the Philippines, Taiwan and others in the region.

Given this, Rahmat said: “One of the weaknesses of the Chinese navy, despite the number of hulls that they have compared to the Americans, is the fact that they don’t have a network of friendly ports from which they can operate in the event they need to launch a campaign.”

On the other hand, “One of the strengths of the US Navy is not just its ships and its technology, but its ability to call on a vast network of friendly ports and, aware of this strength, they are doubling down by increasing partnerships across the region,” he added.

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