Biden reaches out to Japan and South Korea to unite forces against China

The American president received the leaders of both allied Asian countries at Camp David

Joe Biden y Yoon Suk-yeol
US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at the White House, in April of 2023.Andrew Harnik (AP)

Camp David – the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountain Park, Maryland – is the living history of American diplomacy. Joe Biden has chosen the rustic and relaxed setting – where peace was negotiated between Egypt and Israel in 1978 – to receive Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

This Friday’s meeting will be the first trilateral summit between the leaders. It’s a sign that Washington wants to cement an alliance with Tokyo and Seoul – one that will involve a more fluid relationship, as well as joint military maneuvers. The United States wants to bring its two main Asian allies closer to each other, so as to counter China’s power in the region.

Like past presidents, Biden occasionally uses Camp David – located just over an hour from Washington – as a retreat and workplace. It’s where he brought his team to negotiate the recent raising of the debt ceiling. But this is the first time in his more than two-and-a-half years as president that he has used Camp David to receive international leaders, in a gesture that shows the importance he has attached to this trilateral summit.

Japan and South Korea have had a chilly relationship plagued by suspicion and mistrust since World War II, when Japan occupied South Korea. However, given the power of China and the threat of North Korea, they have been overcoming their differences and strengthening relations as natural allies in the current geopolitical context. Biden wants to consolidate this rapprochement. Washington has plans to make the trilateral summit an annual event and also plans to open a three-way crisis hotline.

The three leaders have already met in the context of broader international summits, but this time, they’re doing it alone. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized this on Tuesday, August 15, at a press conference in Washington, D.C.: “This summit comes at a moment when our region and the world are being tested by geopolitical competition, by climate crisis, by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, by nuclear provocations. Our heightened engagement is part of our broader efforts to revitalize, to strengthen, to knit together our alliances and partnerships – and in this case, to help realize a shared vision of an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, prosperous, secure, resilient, and connected.”

During his time as deputy secretary of state under Barack Obama, this trilateral relationship was already one of Blinken’s priorities. The current head of US diplomacy noted that the leaders will have the opportunity to discuss and strengthen practical cooperation on a series of shared priorities, “from physical security to economic security, from humanitarian aid to development financing, from global health access to critical and emerging technologies.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a press conference in Washington, D.C., on August 15, 2023.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a press conference in Washington, D.C., on August 15, 2023.JIM LO SCALZO (EFE)

“What you will see on Friday is a very ambitious set of initiatives that seek to strengthen the trilateral commitment, both now and in the future,” Kurt Campbell affirmed on Wednesday, at an event at the Brookings Institution. He’s the head of the Indo-Pacific region at the US National Security Council. Campbell praised the rapprochement between the two countries: “What President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida have done has exceeded expectations. Sometimes – against the advice of their own advisers and staff – they have taken steps that have elevated the Japan-South Korea relationship to a new level.”

Historical grievances

President Yoon has had to face internal criticism for choosing to improve his country’s relations with Japan. He has attempted to overcome historical grievances, especially the sexual slavery of Korean women during World War II. It is estimated that up to 200,000 women in different Asian countries were forced into prostitution by the Imperial Japanese Army. Many of the victims were South Korean.

Seoul and Tokyo have been taking steps in terms of economic, military and technological cooperation. The United States has bilateral alliances with both South Korea and Japan, but wants to strengthen the trilateral relationship… although a joint defense agreement is not in the cards for now. “I think we can imagine a more ambitious future. But [it’s important that we] don’t cross the line. We need to go step by step to properly build and not go beyond the [geopolitical] context that we’re dealing with,” Campbell clarified.

On his first trip to Asia, in May of 2022, Biden visited both Seoul and Tokyo, sparking Chinese anger at what Beijing already perceives as an attempt to forge a trilateral alliance.

The South Korean president visited the White House this past April, warning about the nuclear threat posed by his northern neighbor. Washington has strengthened its cooperation with Seoul around the use of nuclear weapons to counter North Korean threats, while the South Korean government has maintained its commitment not to develop its own nuclear weapons. Biden and Yoon pledged to “develop an increasingly strong mutual defense relationship” and reaffirmed their commitment to combined defense under the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries. “A North Korean nuclear strike against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable and will spell the end of any regime that takes such action,” Biden affirmed, during the post-meeting press conference.

Earlier, in January of 2023, Biden received Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, stressing that the United States is “totally, absolutely, exhaustively committed” to Japan’s defense. Both men agreed to promote Japan’s military role in Asia and modernize the bilateral alliance, essential for both countries in the face of the threat that both perceive in the rise of China.

The growing power of China and the threat of North Korea – especially after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia – have pushed Japan and South Korea to establish a closer relationship. In the context of the geostrategic rivalry between the United States and China, Biden wants to consolidate this rapprochement as a counterweight against the Asian superpower.

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