The U.S.-Japan-ROK Summit at Camp David: Strengthening Trilateral Security Cooperation

The United States (U.S.) President Joe Biden hosted Japanese Prime Minister (PM) Fumio Kishida and Republic of Korea (ROK) President Yoon Suk Yeol at his Camp David retreat on August 18, 2023. It is important that this trilateral summit among the leaders of the U.S., Japan and Korea be held as an independent summit, and not on the sidelines of international meetings as in the past. In addition, the choice of Camp David was symbolic, as well as giving a clue about the purpose of the trilateral summit.

As U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby put it, “Camp David has been a historic setting for summit meetings and for significant foreign policy conversations throughout the history of its existence.” Indeed, many important leaders have been hosted at Camp David, countless summits and meetings have been held, and American presidents have played a mediator role in the search for reconciliation among countries with some bilateral conflicts. For example, in September 1978, then-American President Jimmy Carter hosted and played an intermediary role in the historic Camp David Accords, which started the peace process between Egypt and Palestine, between the then Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israel’s PM Menachem Begin. Further, in July 2000, Bill Clinton hosted the Camp David summit between then Israeli PM Ehud Barack and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, although it failed.

Japan and Korea also have long had a number of bilateral conflicts, notably regarding wartime conscripted labor. However, at the beginning of this year, both PM Kishida and President Yoon expressed their desire to develop closer bilateral relations between the two countries, making the trilateral summit at Camp David even more meaningful.

Security on the Agenda

Although the trilateral summit was held around four main topics, including high-level trilateral consultations, strengthening security cooperation, broadening cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and deepening economic and technology cooperation, security-related issues constituted the main agenda.

To this end, the leaders have made a commitment to consult with each other in their governments to “coordinate their responses to regional challenges, provocations and threats that affect their collective interests and security.” Annual meetings will be held among the Foreign Ministers, Defense Ministers, Commerce and Industry Ministers, and National Security Advisors of the three countries. The main purpose of all these meetings is to strengthen the trilateral relationship across domains. They decided that the three countries would launch an annual Assistant Secretary-led Indo-Pacific Dialogue, to pay attention on coordinating implementation of their respective Indo-Pacific approaches.

The three countries also committed to strengthening trilateral security cooperation, via increased trilateral defense exercises, advanced information sharing, and enhanced cooperation on ballistic missile defense, including against North Korea’s missile threat. When it comes to Indo-Pacific, three countries “are committed to taking actions to defend peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, along with partners in the region. They aim to bolster existing regional architecture, such as ASEAN and the Pacific Islands Forum, and enhance our respective capacity building and humanitarian efforts through greater coordination, including through the Partners in the Blue Pacific, the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, and the Friends of the Mekong.” Further, in this context, they will “establish a trilateral maritime mechanism to synchronize partner capacity building in Southeast Asia and Pacific Island countries, with a focus on Coast Guard and maritime law enforcement capacity building and maritime domain awareness.”

As can be understood from the ‘Fact Sheet’ published by the White House after the summit, it is seen that the three countries are discussing how they can develop tripartite security cooperation in Asia/Indo-Pacific under today’s conditions, rather than solving the issues stemming from the historical problems between Korea and Japan.

Consequences for Indo-Pacific Security

No doubt, the summit will have important consequences for the Asia/Indo-Pacific regional order and regional relations. The most important result of Camp David is not only the strengthening of security cooperation and relations among the three countries, but it will also increase the importance of minilateral structures, especially in the Indo-Pacific visions of both the U.S. and Japan. This is because while the U.S. and Japan are dealing with their regional security policies, they give weight to minilateral structures as they cannot act in Asia/Indo-Pacific under a multilateral regional security organization. In this respect, the most important minilateral structures for the U.S. and Japan are the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue involving the U.S., Japan and Australia, and AUKUS consisting of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States and in which Japan shows its interest, and the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral partnership. Most recently, another U.S. ally, the Philippines has been also added to a trilateral meeting with Japan.

An interesting feature of these minilateral structures is that with the exception of India, all the other countries are treaty allies with the U.S. India, on its part, is developing its relationship through partnership or cooperation due to its non-alliance and strategic autonomy policy. Therefore, all these minilateral structures have been established and supported by either the U.S. or Japan. Considering the fact that both countries support multilateralism in their regional policies, both the U.S. and Japan may envision these minilateral structures to transform into a multilateral security structure in the medium and long term.

Of course, such a structure will encircle and limit the People’s Republic of China and its increasing regional and global power and influence. But the realization and success of such a multilateral security structure will be determined by whether India will participate in such a structure and especially whether ASEAN countries will choose sides in the competition between China and the U.S. However, what will determine whether or not, there will be a change in the position of India and ASEAN here, will be how China approaches India and ASEAN rather than what the U.S. and Japan will offer to India and ASEAN. However, the U.S. may choose to try to unite the treaty allies in these minilateral structures into a multilateral structure without India and ASEAN, and pave the way for bloc politics in the region. For this reason, the trilateral summit held at Camp David should not be seen as a simple trilateral summit among three countries as it may have important effects on the regional order in terms of its medium and long-term results.

Rationale Behind U.S. Moves

Let’s come to the importance of this summit for the U.S. Why does the U.S. want to develop trilateral security cooperation with Japan and Korea? The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the U.S. signed in 1951 and revised in 1960 is actually a treaty that also includes Korea, because the Far East concept in the Treaty includes not only Japan but also Korea. Therefore, it can be deduced that in the treaty, Japan also has a security commitment to Korea. However, the point that creates a problem for the U.S. is that while the U.S. has a security commitment to Japan under the terms of the security treaty (Article V), Japan does not have such a commitment. In other words, while the U.S. has unilaterally undertaken the security of Japan in the treaty, there is no such commitment in the event of an attack or threat against the U.S. from the point of view of Japan. Therefore, it can be interpreted that Japan has no commitment to Korea either. According to the treaty, the U.S. can request assistance from Japan in case of a threat or attack against it, but Japan has not undertaken to take responsibility to defend or protect the U.S. in the treaty. According to the conditions of the day, the Japanese will evaluate and either support or not depending on the situation.

It is certain that the American military is not in Japan only for Japan. It also exists for Korea. It exists to provide support and logistics to troops in Korea. If there are no American troops in Japan, in the event of a possible conflict with North Korea or China on the Korean Peninsula, the closest geography where these troops can receive reinforcements and logistic support is the Philippines and islands such as Midway. Alliance partnership with Japan is critical to the U.S. and comes as an assurance even to its military presence in the broader East and Southeast Asian region.

Therefore, stationing the troops in Japan is indispensable for America. However, it seems that after more than 70 years of the Korean War, the U.S. does not want to take on Korea’s defense responsibility alone and is therefore trying to develop trilateral security cooperation with Japan and Korea and desires to connect the two countries to each other with security commitments.