Biden’s trilateral breakthrough at Camp David
30 Aug 2023|

Many tea leaves have been read on the implications of the ground-breaking Japan–South Korea–United States summit, held at Camp David earlier this month (for example, here, here and here). The first stand-alone meeting of the three countries’ leaders is a diplomatic milestone by any standard. Along with issuing a joint statement, Seoul, Tokyo and Washington agreed to a statement of principles and entered into a commitment to consult when coordinating ‘responses to regional challenges, provocations and threats’.

The summit has set an ambitious agenda for the fledgling trilateral that appears designed to give it deep institutional roots, against the near certainty of a buffeting by future political headwinds. The three countries committed to an annual leaders’ meeting and annual meetings between foreign, defence and economy ministers, as well as between national security advisers.

In the defence domain, trilateral security cooperation will feature a multiyear exercise plan and improved cooperation on ballistic missile defence. The three countries will also stand up a working group on North Korean cyber activities, engage in enhanced information sharing and coordination, and work together to counter foreign information manipulation. A new trilateral maritime cooperation framework and a development and humanitarian response policy dialogue will focus on the Indo-Pacific.

There’s a strong economic security and technology component to the new partnership, including the piloting of a supply-chain early-warning system, a disruptive technology protection network, and a commitment to set common technology standards.

President Joe Biden deserves credit for investing political capital to detoxify and elevate the most fractious relationship between US allies in the Indo-Pacific region. His previous efforts to stabilise Japan–Korea relations, as Barack Obama’s vice president, led nowhere. It would have been understandable had Biden, as president, opted not to go there again.

Biden’s persistence has been rewarded by a breakthrough at Camp David, enabled by a rare alignment of geopolitical stars in Seoul, Washington and Tokyo. Several factors have facilitated this alignment, and the credit is shared by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who bear the biggest political risks.

Chief among the exogenous factors has been China’s self-defeating propensity to cajole Japan and South Korea in parallel. The divide-and-rule tactics that long served Beijing in its efforts to weaken the US regional alliance system have given way to a hardcore offend-and-unify approach under Xi Jinping. To have Seoul and Tokyo singing from the same hymn sheet about ‘the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of security and prosperity in the international community’ is partly a product of Beijing’s tin ear.

Had history taken a different turn, and Japan not colonised the Korean peninsula in the early 20th century, the two countries could have been natural allies. The recent US-brokered rapprochement falls short of that potential: implementation of the trilateral cooperation agenda will remain hostage to domestic politics in Japan, South Korea and even the United States for years to come. The progress achieved at Camp David is fragile and reversible.

That said, few commentators would have predicted such a rapid and promising turnaround in Japan–Korea relations, which to many appeared trapped in perpetual toxicity. The birth of the new trilateral demonstrates that well-crafted, well-timed diplomacy can still surprise, and that US leadership can still deliver effective results.

The latter is worth emphasising, because the Biden administration’s Asia policy came under immediate criticism after the Camp David agreement, when it emerged that the president would not attend this year’s East Asia Summit or the US-ASEAN summit in Jakarta. Biden’s absence calls into question the US commitment to ASEAN-centred multilateralism. Yet the contrast between Camp David and Biden’s ‘no-show’ in Jakarta is instructive about US diplomatic priorities in the region. Washington’s main engagement effort runs on minilateral and bilateral tracks, with allies at its core, plus designated partners, such as India and Vietnam.

While Biden deserves praise for bringing Tokyo and Seoul closer together, the longevity of their festering relationship is partly a structural shortcoming of the US alliance framework in the Pacific. The bilateral hub-and-spokes model, in contrast with the collective defence principle in NATO, was built to serve US hegemony in a different age. ‘Cross-bracing’ the spokes has long been the aim, yet it has taken on urgency belatedly given the scale of the challenge. The Japanese and Korean alliance spokes are both burden-bearing, but the growing distance between them has steadily weakened the wheel. The commitment to consult among the three countries agreed at Camp David is an important and symbolic step towards modernising and strengthening the US alliance system in Asia.

The obvious gain for Australia from the Japan–Korea–US partnership is thus indirect, via an alliance system that is more fit for purpose to provide mutual reinforcement, and less prone to divide-and-rule tactics from that other incipient Northeast Asian triple axis, posed collectively by China, North Korea and Russia.

South Korea’s agreement to sign up to language that explicitly recognises China as a threat to regional security is significant. If the new trilateral helps to channel Seoul’s energy and capacity into a broader regional role, raising its strategic horizons beyond the Korean peninsula, then Canberra can expect some downstream boost to its own defence and security partnership with Seoul, which has struggled to convert its potential. Australia takes part in a quadrilateral fleet commanders’ initiative with Japan, South Korea and the US. This lesser-known naval quartet presents a natural opportunity for Australia to participate in the new Japan–Korea–US Trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation Framework.

Australia is already in two important defence trilaterals: with the US and Japan and AUKUS. Then there’s the Quad. The Japan–Korea–US trilateral should serve as a reminder—if one were needed—that Australia is not central to every new US alliance or minilateral initiative in the region. In fact, the US military’s forward footprint in the Western Pacific remains resolutely top-heavy in Northeast Asia, while the military and economic capacities of Japan and South Korea are simply in a different league to Australia’s.

Some observers have warned that the new trilateral could struggle to compete for high-level attention with the Quad. While that may be true initially, if three-way cooperation involving Washington’s two-biggest Pacific allies gains momentum, it could be the Quad that struggles. Trilaterals may be Washington’s minilateral building blocks of choice in the Indo-Pacific, especially now that the Quad has foolishly dealt itself out of a hard security role in deference to Southeast Asian nervous sensibilities vis-à-vis China.