BIDEN AND other top American officials have already described the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korea relationships as key alliances in meeting America’s twenty-first-century challenges. They also have discussed cooperation on clean energy technologies with both governments. What is lacking is a bold vision that anchors these two nations economically and technologically to America while advancing U.S. geopolitical, energy, and climate aims. While worthwhile, routine efforts like a recent Japan-U.S. Clean Energy Partnership meeting are inadequate to that task.
Some ambitious but realistic options for U.S. policy could include:
A trilateral or larger regional clean energy technology trade agreement. U.S. membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—the successor arrangement to the Trans-Pacific Partnership—may not be politically realistic in America today. But a clean energy technology agreement could be. In addition to its economic and political value, an agreement like this could accelerate deploying clean energy technologies in the Indo-Pacific region, one of the most important ways in which the United States can help to reduce global CO2 emissions.
Joint engagement on clean energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment in select ASEAN countries, such as Indonesia and Vietnam. Several ASEAN members are strategically and economically important to the United States in addition to being significant drivers of global energy demand and rising greenhouse gas emissions. Cooperative U.S., Japanese, and South Korean projects to build technical and governance capacity (e.g., through support for and partnership with university researchers and policy experts), and especially to jointly finance and develop clean energy projects, would support multiple U.S. geopolitical, economic, and climate objectives. A more ambitious version of the administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity could incorporate this.
A dramatically scaled-up partnership on liquified natural gas, CCUS, and clean hydrogen. Such an effort could build upon and benefit from new federal funding for hydrogen power while integrating liquified natural gas and CCUS into America’s clean energy policy, tightening the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korea energy relationships, strengthening allies’ energy security, and consolidating America’s place as a world leader in emerging clean energy technology fields. Such leadership could have lasting benefits for U.S. trade, jobs, and competitiveness as well. A partnership built around LNG may face headwinds at a time of tight gas markets and high prices, but an announcement would send an important signal to governments, energy companies, and investors contending with war-related market disruptions. Cooperation could also include hydrolysis-based hydrogen, which is more economically competitive when natural gas prices are high.
Transformative collaboration on nuclear energy research and development. Nuclear power will likely play an even more important role in global energy systems as demand for clean power grows and small modular reactors reduce costs and limit proliferation concerns. The United States has strong ongoing collaboration with Japan and South Korea on nuclear energy but can do much better in several areas. Some initiatives will require Congressional action, such as restoring funding for the Versatile Test Reactor, which is not only critical to American nuclear research, but could also become a key vehicle for cooperative projects. Other actions may not, such as research and development partnerships with America’s national laboratories and co-financing or other approaches to joint development of nuclear projects in third-party countries. Aligning regulatory standards is essential to speeding the deployment of small modular reactors, which are likely to become commercially available within a decade.
In addition to their contributions to combating climate change, energy and energy technology are already elements of U.S. competition with both China and Russia. Competing effectively will require both new U.S. policies as well as more determined efforts to align America’s approaches with those of its closest friends. As technologically advanced leading economies in a strategic region, Japan and South Korea can be close and impactful allies. A more focused and disciplined U.S. effort to engage these two nations—and others—on energy and energy technology is necessary.
Paul J. Saunders is President of the Energy Innovation Reform Project. He was previously Executive Director of the Center for the National Interest (CFTNI). He remains a member of the center’s Board of Directors and a senior fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at CFTNI.