Toward a New Era in Japan-US-ROK Cooperation: China Concerns Drive Trilateral “Indo-Pacific Shift”Politics
The trilateral summit held at Camp David, Maryland, on August 18 this year heralded a new phase in strategic relations between Japan, the United States, and the Republic of Korea. The meeting between US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, convened at Biden’s initiative, signaled a groundbreaking shift from security cooperation focused on North Korea to a broader strategic partnership in support of regional stability and a “free and open international order” in the Indo-Pacific.
Fitting Venue for a Historic Summit
It was the first summit President Biden convened at Camp David, the presidential retreat that has hosted such historic top-level meetings as the conference leading to the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. It was also the first-ever standalone Japan–US–ROK trilateral summit, although the leaders of the three countries had consulted 12 times previously on the sidelines of other international gatherings.
The choice of venue was indicative of the great importance Washington placed on the conference and the hard work it has devoted to bringing it about. In a pre-summit press briefing, John Kirby, Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council, characterized the meeting as the “culmination of months and months of work” by the US administration, which had worked tirelessly to bolster Indo-Pacific cooperation ever since Biden took office in January 2021.
The outcome of the talks, conducted for about two hours over lunch, more than repaid those efforts. After issuing the Camp David Principles, presenting a shared vision for trilateral cooperation, the three leaders adopted a joint statement titled The Spirit of Camp David, which outlines the direction and substance of the partnership in greater detail.
The overriding theme of both documents is a shared commitment to “enhance strategic coordination between the US-Japan and US-ROK alliances and bring our trilateral security cooperation to new heights” with an eye to the peace, security, and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region. Expanding the scope of the trilateral partnership beyond the narrow focus of North Korea, the three leaders pledged to embark on a new era guided by their shared values, with the “collective purpose” of ensuring “a free and open Indo-Pacific” and supporting the “international order based on the rule of law.”
Deterring Chinese Aggression
Nor does the joint statement stop at such lofty abstractions. In it, the three leaders not only “reaffirm the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” but also “strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the waters of the Indo-Pacific,” specifically citing “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.”
At the joint press conference following the talks, Biden insisted that the summit was “not about China” but “about our relationship with each other and deepening cooperation across an entire range of issues.” At the same time, he acknowledged that the leaders had shared concerns over China’s behavior, implying that such conduct had necessitated moves to strengthen strategic ties between the United States, Japan, and South Korea. The three governments had already agreed on “the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” in the November 2022 Phnom Penh Statement on US–Japan–Republic of Korea Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific. In the August 2023 joint statement, they strengthened their language with a “call for a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues,” taking an unequivocal stand against armed action by China.
With such security concerns in mind, the three made a number of key commitments aimed at enhancing regional deterrence. They agreed to expand joint military training and exercises and conduct them regularly, on an annual basis. They also pledged to engage in “regular and timely communication,” including top-level consultations, to exchange information and coordinate on security issues. In addition, they announced their intent to establish a trilateral hotline to share real-time information on missiles and other imminent threats and coordinate a response.
Aiming to usher in a “new era” in strategic coordination, the three governments agreed to institutionalize trilateral cooperation by holding meetings between their leaders, foreign ministers, defense ministers, and national security advisors at least annually. They also announced the launch of a new “commerce and industry ministers track” that will meet every year. South Korea’s foreign policy often undergoes major course shifts when a new administration takes over, and these measures are designed to ensure that trilateral consultations, including cabinet- and working-level meetings, continue without interruption.
The summit also yielded progress in the realm of economic security, as the leaders promised to work closely together to build an “early warning system” targeting possible disruptions to the supply chain, with a focus on such critical products as semiconductors, and to launch consultations aimed at preventing cutting-edge technologies from being stolen or leaked.
In addition to the topics covered in the joint statement, the summit talks addressed concerns about North Korea and Russia in considerable detail, including missile launches, misinformation, and cyberattacks. At the joint press conference following the talks, Prime Minister Kishida spoke glowingly of the summit as a historic meeting and a valuable opportunity to forge a “new era in the Japan-US-ROK partnership.”
The Yoon Administration as Linchpin
Biden certainly deserves credit for his efforts to strengthen trilateral ties, going back to his tenure as vice-president under President Barack Obama. But the decisive factor behind the current Japan–South Korea rapprochement and the expansion of trilateral cooperation was undoubtedly the advent of the Yoon administration.
The leaders of Japan, the United States, and South Korea first gathered for three-way talks back in 1994. But in the years that followed, relations between Tokyo and Seoul repeatedly foundered on issues tied to Korea’s historical grievances. Tensions ran especially high under the administration of Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in (2017–22), who sought to strengthen ties with China and engage with North Korea while showing a pronounced anti-Japanese bias. For a time, top-level trilateral talks were suspended entirely.
The administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol, inaugurated in May 2022, removed key roadblocks to improved relations. Yoon appealed to the public with his foreign-policy vision of South Korea as “a global pivotal state” at the center of the campaign to protect and promote “universal values and international norms.” In December 2022, his administration released its Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific, which aligns Seoul with Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative and the policies of the Western democracies, positioning China and Russia as competitors. Yoon’s foreign-policy pivot toward the Indo-Pacific can be credited with enhancing political trust between Tokyo and Seoul and paving the way for the trilateral summit.
Minding the Weak Link
The question now is whether the relationship can survive the tests that await it.
In South Korea, public support for Yoon’s approach to foreign relations and security is by no means rock-solid. That policy has also drawn fierce condemnation from China, which has accused Japan, the United States, and South Korea of forming “an exclusive bloc that poses a threat to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific” (Xinhua). If history is any indication, South Korea is even more vulnerable than Japan to economic and political pressure from China, its largest trading partner.
Of course, pressure from the United States has also been mounting. Finding it increasingly difficult to marshal the resources to compete with China geopolitically, the United States is insisting that its allies and partners step up and contribute their fair share in the name of “integrated deterrence.” Washington needs the cooperation of both Tokyo and Seoul and can no longer allow their squabbling to compromise its regional strategy.
But that could still happen. While Japan and South Korea are both US allies, they are not allied with one another, and China naturally views their fraught relationship as the weak link in the trilateral partnership. Beijing could employ any number of stratagems to fan the flames of historical controversy, destabilize South Korea politically, and draw Seoul into its orbit. Vigilance and savvy on the part of all three governments will be needed to keep the Indo-Pacific shift on course.
(Originally Published in Japanese. Banner photo: (From left) South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, US President Joe Biden, and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio shake hands at the end of their post-summit joint press conference at Camp David, Maryland, August 18, 2023. © AFP/Jiji.)