Institutionalising a trilateral alliance

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 22 Aug 2023

The summit meeting between the US, Japan, and South Korea at Camp David last week aimed at solidifying the strategic partnership between the three countries, writes Hussein Haridy


US President Joe Biden hosted a trilateral summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at Camp David in Maryland on 18 August.

It was the first time Biden had received foreign leaders at the US presidential retreat since he took office in January 2021 and the first summit meeting between the three leaders to have been specially convened and not to have taken place on the sidelines of other multilateral summits in Asia or Europe.

The US administration is keen to signal that its Asian-Pacific strategy will aim to anchor both Japan and South Korea in its strategic approach to security and stability in Asia and the Pacific in addition to its Indo-Pacific strategy. This will have been a major component of the discussions on 18 August, and in fact the first foreign visits by both US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin were to Japan and South Korea in February 2021.

Biden’s own first tour to the region was to South Korea and Japan in May 2022, showing the strategic priority that Washington attaches to integrating the two Asian countries into a security alliance that serves its strategy towards both China and North Korea. The Biden administration has also pushed the two countries to invest in European security, particularly in the context of the war in Ukraine.

The Camp David summit was thus a diplomatic success for the US in its strategy of competition with China, on the one hand, and its deterrence policy towards North Korea, on the other, let alone in its aim of aligning the positions of the Japanese and South Korean governments with the US and NATO positions towards Russia and their unquestioned support for Ukraine in its military conflict with Russia.

It drew up two basic documents that institutionalise the US-Japanese-South Korean alliance. The three countries have launched a comprehensive strategic partnership, short of a military alliance, that covers security and military cooperation and cooperation in emerging technologies, the economy, and trade, not excluding cooperation in the field of finance and in the fight against climate change.

However, the very comprehensiveness of this alliance may signal a certain vulnerability to any change of government in Tokyo and Seoul for two main reasons.

The first is related to the complex relationship between Japan and South Korea, despite the fact that their leaders held a summit meeting lately and seemingly resolved their outstanding differences related to the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula during the last century. The political opposition in both countries is not in full agreement with their respective governments on this issue.

The other is more strategic in nature and has to do with their relations with China. In the near and more distant future, both Tokyo and Seoul will have the daunting task of finding a strategic equilibrium between their giant neighbour China and the US. While the present governments in Tokyo and Seoul have chosen to align themselves with US strategy towards China in the Indo-Pacific region, future ones in both capitals could have different ideas and different approaches to dealing with China.

There will be an exception, of course, regarding the South Korean position on North Korea, particularly in the framework of the North’s nuclear and ballistic weapons programmes.

The first document to come out of the Camp David meeting was the so-called “Camp David Principles”, in which the three leaders agreed to continue to advance a free and open Indo- Pacific region based on respect for international law, shared norms, and common values, it said.

The document said that they oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the region by force or coercion, a clear reference to China as far as the Taiwan question is concerned.

Another principle set out in the document that guides security cooperation among the three countries was the affirmation that this will “enhance peace and stability throughout the region”. The document lends “unwavering support” to the centrality of the ASEAN group of nations in the region and for the existing “regional architecture”.

Another principle mentions working with the Pacific Island countries and the Pacific Island Forum.

Concerning relations between the two Koreas, as expected the “Camp David Principles” reaffirm the principle of the “complete denuclearisation of North Korea” and express a commitment to dialogue with the North with “no preconditions” and the lending of support to a unified Korean Peninsula that is “free and at peace”.

A related principle is the reiteration of honouring the commitments of the three governments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The second document to come out of the Camp David summit is called “Commitment to Consult” and speaks about the freedom of the three countries to take all appropriate actions to uphold their respective security interests or sovereignty.

The most important part of the document is the agreement to hold a “leaders meeting” at least once a year as well as yearly meetings of the three countries’ foreign and defence ministers as well as their national security advisers. Yearly meetings of their ministers of commerce and industry will also be held, and the document goes on to refer to a “first trilateral meeting” of finance ministers.

On another level, the three leaders also call for the initiation of an annual Indo-Pacific Dialogue at assistant secretary level that will focus on coordinating the implementation of the Indo-Pacific policies of the three countries, with special emphasis on partnerships with the Southeast Asian and Pacific Island countries.

On the sidelines of the Camp David summit Biden held separate meetings with his Asian guests. In the meeting with the Japanese prime minister, they committed themselves to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes”.

The readout of the meeting between Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said that the two leaders had pledged to work closely together to deal with the “unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programmes of North Korea”, including through “extended deterrence activities” consistent with the Washington Declaration signed during the state visit of the South Korean President to the US in April.

The Camp David summit aimed at solidifying the comprehensive strategic partnership between the US, Japan, and South Korea. The results are a clear win for the US in its strategy of containing and competing with China and deterring North Korea. They ensure the support of Japan and South Korea for the western strategy in Ukraine.

Whether the policies of the three countries will align when it comes to China, North Korea, and Russia remains to be seen, however.

North Korean leader Kim Yong-Un said recently in reaction to the joint military exercises carried out by the US and South Korea in the region that these represented a “new Cold War”. In the light of the networks of military and security alliances that the US has established over the last three years in the Indo-Pacific region, I think he may be right.  

The writer is former assistant foreign minister.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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