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Biden’s Camp David Moment
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Biden’s Camp David Moment

South Korea and Japan set aside historical differences to address a rising China.

President Joe Biden holds a trilateral news conference with President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan at Camp David, Maryland, on August 18, 2023. (Photo by Kyle Mazza/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Soon after a fleet of Russian and Chinese warships traversed the waterway between Japan’s Okinawa and Miyako Islands on Thursday, the leaders of Washington’s foremost North Asian allies touched down in the United States for a historic display of unity amid growing regional tensions.

President Joe Biden hosted South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Camp David last Friday for a stand-alone summit, the first of its kind between the three nations. The choice of venue was no accident: It was at the presidential retreat in Maryland that President Jimmy Carter brokered a peace between Israel and Egypt in 1978. Nearly 45 years later, the three heads of state set aside the Asian allies’ historical differences in the face of novel geopolitical threats.

“I can think of no more fitting location to begin the next era—our next era of cooperation—a place that has long symbolized the power of new beginnings and new possibilities,” Biden said Friday, standing alongside Yoon and Kishida. “This is not about a day, a week, or month. This is about decades and decades of relationships that we’re building.”

To that end, the three leaders unveiled a series of steps to ensure the countries’ partnership can outlast their own administrations. In addition to pledging to hold future high-level meetings, the summit laid out plans to enhance economic and technological collaboration with an eye toward preventing supply chain vulnerabilities. Technologies like semiconductors, clean energy, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence were of particular focus.

But security took center stage at Camp David, with the explicit recognition that the three nations share not only interests and values, but also adversaries and competitors. 

Though the acknowledgement stopped short of a formal military alliance or collective defense pact—the U.S. has separate guarantees with both countries—it emphasized the importance of security cooperation to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. And a joint statement that came out of the summit listed the greatest threats to that status quo, China and North Korea, by name.

To project that any acts of aggression in the region will be met with a unified response, the three countries will hold annual military exercises and ballistic missile drills, U.S. officials said last week. A direct hotline and “commitment to consult” will ensure that the countries work together to coordinate their responses to whatever challenges may arise. 

All of these efforts send a “clear signal to China and to North Korea that their actions are driving America’s allies in northeast Asia together like never before,” Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, tells The Dispatch. “There’s a good chance that the common interests on which this summit was based will be durable, because China’s not changing its stripes and neither is North Korea. We’re now at a point where the historical animus between our allies has been tremendously overshadowed by the contemporary challenges they face together.”

The summit followed more than a year of public and behind-the-scenes diplomacy by the Biden administration—including four trilateral meetings on the sidelines of various summits—to get the key U.S. allies to move beyond historical disputes centered around imperial Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. In March, Seoul and Tokyo paved the way for improved ties with an agreement to resolve forced labor debts.

Yoon, as part of his ambition to make South Korea into a “global pivotal state,” had led the charge to patch things up between his nation and Japan since taking office in 2022. In an annual speech marking South Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule last week, Yoon stressed the need to work with its North Asian neighbor, and fellow democracy, on regional and international threats. “Japan has transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values with us,” he said.

Japan, meanwhile, has been forced to rethink its post-war commitment to pacifism amid Chinese provocations and Russia’s war in Ukraine. The country’s annual defense white paper, published last month, described China as its “greatest strategic challenge and Russia’s invasion as a “serious violation of international law.” Already the island nation has begun boosting its offensive capabilities and seeking out new friends in the region.

“Certainly the Ukraine and Russia war has made Japan much more wary about conflict and open to working with other partners within the region, especially partners that are already allied with the U.S.,” says Andrew Yeo, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and chair of its SK-Korea Foundation, pointing to the importance of shared values in cementing Tokyo and Seoul’s defense relationship. “That’s something that both countries have mentioned quite a bit—that they’re there to adhere to, to uphold a rules-based order, that they’re both on the same side, the same team.”

The ideological undertone of the budding partnership is of particular concern to Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party, which has often accused Washington of perpetuating a “Cold War mentality” in the Indo-Pacific. In addition to shoring up the Japan-South Korea partnership, the U.S. has fostered regional coalitions like AUKUS and the Quad, as well as bolstered its direct ties with heavy weights like India and the Philippines.

This latest summit, though in many ways a reaction to Chinese aggression, was “not about taking steps that would in any way seek to isolate China,” a senior U.S. official told reporters Thursday. “Each of these countries wants stable relations, and they are determined to work constructively towards that end.”

Beijing thinks differently. “No country should seek its own security at the expense of other countries’ security interests and regional peace and stability. The international community has its fair judgment on who is stoking conflicts and exacerbating tensions,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Friday when asked about the Camp David meeting during a press conference. “Attempts to cobble together various exclusionary groupings and bring bloc confrontation and military blocs into the Asia-Pacific are not going to get support and will only be met with vigilance and opposition from regional countries.”

But some analysts believe China’s fear-mongering about Asia’s shifting security architecture conveniently omits the role it played in driving newfound partners together.

“This is very much the logical response to the rising challenge. And the challengers—China, North Korea, Russia—have to take note of that. Their assertiveness and aggression will trigger corresponding responses from very capable countries, even ones who have in the past been handicapped by historical tensions,” Cronin says. “China can weaponize history all it wants, but the reality is that this is not the Asian allies creating tensions. This is Asian democracies, with the United States, creating a bulwark against aggression.”

Charlotte Lawson is a reporter at The Dispatch and currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to joining the company in 2020, she studied history and global security at the University of Virginia. When Charlotte is not keeping up with foreign policy and world affairs, she is probably trying to hone her photography skills.