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South Korea, Japan and US vow ‘new era’

President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
September 24, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The leaders of South Korea, Japan and the United States will meet annually from now on and discuss all regional security issues on a threeway hotline before making decisions, President Joe Biden said after a high-profile trilateral summit at Camp David on Friday.

Military exercises between the countries will also be organized each year, the U.S. president said, and the three countries would prioritize the “peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.”

Biden hosted South Korean President Yoon Seok-youl and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the redoubt in northern Maryland for five hours amid a push by the leaders to seize on a slim window of opportunity to “institutionalize” ties towards a trilateral alliance.

The South Korean and Japanese governments, experts say, are seeking to lock-in a U.S. role in their region amid fears next year’s U.S. presidential election could return an isolationist to office, while Tokyo remains skeptical Yoon’s fervor for closer ties can last in a country where many still harbor anti-Japanese resentment.

But Biden said at a press conference after the summit he believed increased trilateral cooperation now looked set in concrete, with Yoon and Kishida – the leaders of two historical enemies, both separately allied with the United States – coming together in joint interest.

“If it looks like I’m happy, that’s because I am,” Biden said. He called the summit “historic” and “a long-term structure for a relationship that will last” and may even be “expanded” into something larger. 

Biden made reference to a 2010 hot-mic moment in which he was caught, as vice-president, using an expletive to emphasize excitement: “Someone once said in a different context – about health care provision in my country, a while ago – this is a ‘big deal,’” he said. 

Lasting ties

Biden also said South Korean and Japanese citizens should not be concerned about a return to his predecessor as president, Donald Trump, because the summit created shared institutions across the countries aimed to make ties “more certain to remain in place.”

“There’s not much, if anything, I agree on with my predecessor on foreign policy. His ‘America First’ policy, walking away from the rest of the world, made us weaker, not stronger,” Biden said. “What makes today different is it actually launches a series of initiatives that are actually institutional changes in how we deal with one another.”

Yoon said the summit laid the basis of much closer trilateral ties across levels of government, and not just on the leader level.

“In addition to making our trilateral summit regular, we have agreed to have our government personnel at all levels – including foreign ministers, defense ministers and national security advisors – meet every year to closely coordinate our trilateral cooperation,” Yoon said.

A “consultative body for development policy coordination” would also be created, he added, and the three capitals would coordinate the tracking of North Korean missile tests, which are being launched with increasing frequency over both South Korea and Japan.

Kishida noted that all three countries would be members of the U.N. Security Council next year and said they should use their unity to put pressure on Beijing’s expansion and Pyongyang’s nuclear program, which he noted were driving forces of the Camp David summit.

“The unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force in the East and South China Seas are continuing, and the nuclear and missile threat of North Korea, are only becoming ever larger,” Kishida said. 

“Under such circumstances, to make our trilateral strategic collaboration blossom and bloom is only logical, and almost inevitable.”

No trilateral alliance

The leaders released two documents: a shorter text called “The Principles of Camp David” and an official statement for the summit called “The Spirit of Camp David,” which among other things slammed China’s government for its “dangerous and aggressive behavior supporting unlawful maritime claims” in the South China Sea.

The principles, meanwhile, avowed “the complete denuclearization” of North Korea, “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and that the three countries would “stand as one” and remain “aligned in our objectives and in our actions” while operating in the Indo-Pacific.

However, the statement skirted the fact that the three countries were not signing a formal trilateral alliance, with the relationships still to be defined by Tokyo and Seoul’s separate alliances with Washington, which have been in effect since 1952 and 1953, respectively.

“With the renewed bonds of friendship—and girded by the ironclad U.S.-Japan and U.S.-ROK alliances—each of our bilateral relationships is now stronger than ever,” it said. “So too is our trilateral relationship.”

Beijing has described the summit as an example of the United States trying to hem in its power in the region. On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin again criticized the meeting and argued it would not be received well throughout Asia.

“The Asia-Pacific is an anchor for peace and development and a promising land for cooperation and growth, and should never be turned into a wrestling ground for geopolitical competition again,” Wang said, slamming attempts to create “exclusionary groupings and bring bloc confrontation and military blocs into the Asia-Pacific.”

‘Staying power’

Before the summit began, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, noted that no summit of foreign leaders had been held at Camp David since 2015, under former President Barack Obama. 

But he noted the location – the site where former President Franklin Roosevelt hosted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II and where Bill Clinton hosted the leaders of Israel and Palestine to try to end their conflict in 2000 – was chosen deliberately.

“In keeping with the time-honored tradition of hosting significant, consequential diplomatic meetings at Camp David, this summit signifies a new era of trilateral cooperation for the U.S., Japan and the ROK,” he said, referring to South Korea’s government. “We’re opening a new era, and we’re making sure that era has staying power.”

He also denied claims leveled by Beijing that the summit marked the start of U.S. efforts to create a security pact like NATO in the east, saying the partnership was not being aimed “against anyone.”

“It’s explicitly not a NATO for the Pacific,” Sullivan said. “We will continue to underscore that, and so will both Japan and Korea.”

France and Germany redux

Another senior administration official, speaking on the condition he not be identified, said on a call he believed the summit marked a permanent warming in the rocky ties between Tokyo and Seoul.

He likened the event to similar meetings between historical enemies France and Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, which he noted were also controversial among the two populations at the time but had over the decades forged an entirely political reality in Europe. 

“I’ve been doing diplomacy in Asia for 30 years, or longer; I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a series of preparations in which alignment between the three governments was so clear,” he said, pointing to the shared sense of “threat perception, opportunities and duty.”

He was less cautious than Sullivan about citing China’s role, and said the newfound union between Seoul and Tokyo, in particular, could be attributable to the deteriorating security situation in Northeast Asia caused by Beijing’s expansionism and Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

“What you’re seeing in Japan, South Korea and the United States is largely a response to security steps and measures that we believe are antithetical to our interests,” he said, before adding that the three were still “committed to effective, practical diplomacy with China.”