US brings South Korea and Japan closer together in landmark Camp David summit

Washington continues to emphasise Indo-Pacific partnerships during intensified competition with China

US President Joe Biden, centre, with South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Camp David. EPA
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The US, Japan, and South Korea have committed to “unprecedented” military, technological and health co-operation, after a landmark trilateral meeting at Camp David.

US President Joe Biden hosted the leaders of South Korea and Japan on Friday for the summit aimed at warming relations between Washington's strongest Indo-Pacific allies whose relationship has been strained.

“From this moment on, Camp David will be remembered as a historic place where the Republic of Korea, the United States and Japan proclaimed that we will bolster the rules based international order and play key roles to enhance regional security and prosperity,” South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol said at a joint press conference following the meeting.

Mr Biden praised the summit's deliverables as a sign of “a new era” in the East Asian theatre, while Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida heralded the outlined principles as “a historic turning point for the international community, to be a new compass for trilateral co-operation”.

That co-operation includes a multiyear military exercise plan, part of a series of “significant steps” to enhance trilateral security co-operation in the region “in the face of North Korean provocations,” the White House said.

The leaders agreed to “strengthen co-operation” on sanctioning North Korea, which has ramped up weapons testing, Mr Kishida said at the press conference.

There is also a commitment to a “duty to consult” in the event of a security crisis affecting any of their countries, senior White House officials said on Thursday.

That includes investments in technology to support a “state-of-the-art trilateral hotline” ready to be engaged in “moments of crisis and uncertainty”, the White House added.

Washington emphasised that the agreement does not “infringe upon” each country's right to defend itself.

“But what we are building here is a common security framework that increasingly will give our leaders and our top national security officials the incentive to work closely together,” one official said.

The allies also agreed on a trilateral “expert exchange”, aimed at boosting Washington's “cancer moonshot” imitative that is working to “end cancer as we know it”.

Washington highlighted the importance of the summit's setting, Camp David, which has been the backdrop for meetings between Israeli and Palestinian delegations as well as key conferences aimed at ending the Second World War.

“That venue is reserved for only the most important and significant such meetings,” a White House official added.

The warming of relations between Seoul and Tokyo, American allies with deep-rooted and enduring grievances stemming from Japan's colonial legacy in the Korean peninsula, is significant for Washington's Indo-Pacific alliance structure against rival China.

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Rahm Emanuel, Washington's ambassador to Japan, made that wider context clear at a Wednesday Brookings Institute roundtable.

“This is a fundamental advancement of America's interests. China's entire strategy is based on the premise that America's No 1 and No 2 ally in the region [Japan and South Korea] can't get together and get on the same page,” Mr Emanuel said.

“That's fundamentally different now.

“Our message is we're a permanent Pacific power and presence and you can bet long on America. China's message is we're the rising power, they're declining, either get in line or you're going to get the Philippine treatment,” referring to recent tensions between Beijing and Manila in the South China Sea.

But the White House on Thursday emphasised that the trilateral summit is “really not going to be centrally focused” on Beijing messaging, but rather on the partnership building between Tokyo and Seoul, a White House official said.

Mr Yoon and Mr Kishida met earlier this month in the first bilateral summit between South Korean and Japanese leaders in more than a decade, in what has been welcomed by both sides as a step towards reconciliation.

Mira Rapp-Hooper, the White House National Security Council's senior director for East Asia and Oceania, told a Brookings Institute meeting on Wednesday: “We have two particular leaders meeting their moment, and we do believe we have a new chapter and a new beginning as a result of those things.”

American officials said they see a moment of alignment between the two Asian nations and the US, with one saying during the Thursday press call: “I don't think I've ever been involved in a series of preparations in which the alignment between the three governments was so clear and straightforward.”

Updated: August 19, 2023, 4:09 AM