Camp David, US | Saturday, August 19, 2023

The presidents of South Korea, Japan, and the United States came to an agreement at Camp David on Friday to strengthen their military and economic relations as well as to denounce China’s “dangerous and aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea.

In an effort to project unity in the face of China’s rising influence and North Korea’s nuclear threats, the Biden administration convened the summit with the leaders of the two biggest US allies in Asia, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

The three nations agreed, in a joint summit statement, to swiftly confer with one another during emergencies and to coordinate their actions to regional difficulties, provocations, and dangers impacting shared interests.

They also agreed to share real-time information on North Korean missile launches by the end of 2023 and to perform yearly trilateral military training exercises. The nations agreed to regularly hold trilateral summits.

The political agreements do not amount to a formal three-way alliance, but they are a brave step for Seoul and Tokyo given their long-standing animosity toward one another due to Japan’s oppressive 1910–1945 colonial control of Korea.

The summit, which took place at the presidential retreat in Maryland, was the first separate gathering of the US, Japan, and South Korea. It was made possible by Yoon’s initiative for reconciliation and by a common perception of the dangers posed by China, North Korea, and Russia following their invasion of the Ukraine.

Stronger than anticipated words from the leaders on China stood out and is likely to elicit a response from Beijing, which is a crucial trading partner for both South Korea and Japan. According to the statement, “We strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the waters of the Indo-Pacific due to the dangerous and aggressive behavior supporting unlawful maritime claims that we have recently witnessed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the South China Sea.”

For foreign leaders, it was Biden’s first summit at Camp David, and he noted that the natural setting had long represented “the power of new beginnings and new possibilities.”

“If I seem like I’m happy, I am,” he told a joint news conference with Kishida and Yoon, calling it a “new era” for the three countries. “This has been a great, great meeting.”

‘Breathtaking’ diplomacy

Biden lauded the leaders for their political fortitude in pursuing a rapprochement while standing next to Kishida and Yoon. The world, he said, was “at an inflection point, where we’re called to lead in new ways, to work together, to stand together.”

Importantly, he continued, “We’ve all agreed to consult with one another promptly in response to threats to any one of our countries from wherever they originate. That means anytime there is a crisis in the region or impacting any one of our countries, we will have a hotline to share information and coordinate our responses.

Together, Biden added, “we’re going to defend international law and fight coercion.” Kishisa stated, “Unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force in the East and South China Seas are continuing,” and added that the North Korean nuclear and missile threat was “only becoming ever larger.” He avoided naming China by name in his statement.

According to the summit agreement, “any provocations or attacks against any one of our three countries will trigger a decision-making process of this trilateral framework and our solidarity will become even stronger and harder,” Yoon stated.

US officials claim that one of the reasons the three nations are not currently pursuing a three-way mutual-defense pact similar to those Washington has separately with both Seoul and Tokyo – who are not themselves recognized allies – is because of leftover historical baggage.

The conference, according to Kurt Campbell, Biden’s coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, was made possible by Yoon and Kishida’s “awesome kind of diplomacy,” which at times “went against the advice of their own counselors and staff.”

China views summit warily

Beijing has expressed concern that US initiatives to deepen ties with South Korea and Japan may “increase tension and confrontation in the region.” China claims that Washington is attempting to diplomatically isolate and militarily encircle it, despite the desire of South Korea, Japan, and the United States to avoid offending Beijing.

When asked about the accusations made by China, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, responded to reporters that the aim was “explicitly not a NATO for the Pacific” and that a trilateral alliance had not been defined as an explicit goal.

The White House wants to make the advancements between South Korea and Japan difficult to reverse by institutionalizing routine collaboration across the board in light of the impending elections. Biden, an 80-year-old Democrat running for re-election in 2024, would certainly face Republican former President Donald Trump, who has questioned whether Washington gains anything from its long-standing military and economic partnerships.

Both South Korea and Japan must hold elections for their legislatures before October 2025, and voters in both countries continue to be divided over the still-fragile rapprochement between the two countries.

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