The U.S., Japan and South Korea sign a trilateral security agreement, causing concern in Beijing

The three countries are inaugurating ‘a new era of cooperation,’ but they say that the summit is not anti-Chinese and does not establish a ‘mini NATO structure’ in the Pacific

De izquierda a derecha, el presidente de Corea del Sur, Yoon Suk Yeol; el de Estados Unidos, Joe Biden y el primer ministro de Japón, Fumio Kishida, este viernes en Camp David.
From left, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Camp David on Friday.NATHAN HOWARD / POOL (EFE)
Miguel Jiménez

As in many great moments of U.S. diplomacy, Camp David was the setting in which President Joe Biden hosted Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Friday to inaugurate what they called “a new era of trilateral cooperation.” Biden has attempted to build on improved relations between Seoul and Tokyo to create a common front to serve as a counter to Chinese hegemony in Asia and the threat posed by North Korea. The three leaders reached agreements on security matters, arousing fears in Beijing.

Biden insisted on the permanence of the alliance: “This is not about a day, a week or a month. It’s about decades and decades of relationships that we are building.” It is a relationship “forever,” he said, emphasizing his view that the summit was “historic” in nature. The three leaders signed a declaration, the Spirit of Camp David, in which they set out the specific agreements. In the pact, they also denounced what they consider to be “dangerous and aggressive behavior” by the Beijing government recently in regard to its “unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea.”

Washington maintains that the trilateral summit was not anti-China. “This summit was not about China,” Biden has said, and Kishida expressed the same sentiment. But China has gotten the message, and not only because it was mentioned in the final declaration. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman made that clear this week. And on Wednesday, the Global Times, which has ties to the Chinese Communist Party, cited Chinese experts in foreign affairs to argue that the three countries were forming “a mini NATO structure that will be destructive to regional security, complicating the situation with more conflicts.”

The United States flatly rejects that characterization: “It’s not a NATO for the Pacific. We have said so. We will continue to insist on that, as will Japan and Korea,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Friday.

“Strengthening the ties between our democracies has long been a priority for me,” Biden said at the start of the summit. “Our countries are stronger, and the world is safer, when we stand together,” he added. Speaking after the meeting, Biden noted that South Korea and Japan “are capable and indispensable allies.” He emphasized that “the U.S. commitment to both countries is ironclad.”

“Our trilateral partnership is opening a new chapter that I believe is of great importance,” Yoon said. “Greater coordination between Korea, the U.S. and Japan requires a stronger institutional foundation. In addition, challenges that threaten regional security must be addressed with a greater commitment to working together,” the South Korean president added, calling it a “historic day.”

Kishida agreed that the summit had made “history” and that “the international community is at a critical moment.” The leaders specifically referred to geopolitical competition, the climate crisis, Russia’s war against Ukraine and nuclear provocations as the context of the meeting.

In keeping with the meeting’s rustic setting at the Camp David presidential residence in the Maryland mountains (just over an hour’s drive from Washington), the three leaders arrived at the summit dressed more informally, eschewing neck ties.

Military maneuvers

Security issues are at the heart of this new trilateral relationship, although it also touches on economic, technological and health issues and an early-warning mechanism for supply chain disruptions. The three leaders are committed to a multi-year planning process for military exercises in all areas—air, land, maritime, undersea, cyber, etc. —which will “take trilateral defense cooperation to unprecedented levels,” Biden said.

The three countries will redouble information-sharing on issues including North Korea’s missile launches, cyber activities and cryptocurrency laundering. “Most importantly, we have all committed to consult each other and respond swiftly to threats against any of our countries, whatever the source. That means that we will have a hotline to share information and coordinate our responses whenever there is a crisis in the region or [one] that affects any of our countries,” the U.S. president said.

Biden also noted a shared commitment to “maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and confronting economic coercion,” as well as to a peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea. He also referred to North Korea and “the possible transfer of arms to support Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine”; the U.S. suspects that Pyongyang may provide Moscow with missile technology.

In addition, the U.S. president praised the courage of Yoon and Kishida in forging closer relations between their two countries. Both are Washington’s major allies in the region and the fact that the two countries did not get along has always been a problem for the United States.

Japan–South Korea relations have been characterized by suspicion, mistrust and coldness, stemming from the 35 years during which the Korean peninsula was a Japanese colony, as well as from World War II, especially grievances about sexual slavery. Tens of thousands of women were tricked or forced into prostitution in imperial Japanese army brothels.

Since coming to power, Yoon has worked to improve relations with Japan. The common threat from North Korea and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have helped bring two natural regional allies closer together. Biden wants those improved relations to be consolidated and sustained over time; he believes a close trilateral relationship can contribute to that goal. On his first trip to Asia in May 2022, Biden visited both Seoul and Tokyo, prompting Chinese concern.

However, even in the long term, Biden has not made establishing a formal trilateral alliance an explicit goal. “We’ve had strong and deep bilateral alliances with both Japan and the Republic of Korea for decades. We would like to see [the two countries] continue to strengthen their cooperation and to deepen and institutionalize this three-way cooperation,” he said.

The summit is the first one held at Camp David—a historically important setting for U.S. diplomacy—since 2015, when then-President Barack Obama hosted the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations to assure them that the United States was committed to their security.

Thus, Biden is demonstrating the importance he attaches to the Indo-Pacific region, his relations with these two leaders and their trilateral cooperation. “This is the first summit I’m holding at Camp David as president,” he explained. “I can think of no more appropriate place to begin next year, our next year of cooperation than a place that has long symbolized the power of new beginnings and new possibilities. In the months and years ahead, we will continue to seize those possibilities together, unwavering in our unity and unmatched in our determination,” he concluded.

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