The Camp David summit between Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK)/South Korea, and the United States (US) is the latest in the evolving security architecture of the world. The three countries’ leaders gathered on 18 August 2023 to reaffirm their commitment to security and cooperation, citing the need to improve collaboration in critical technology and meet the threat from North Korea. This summit also takes place against the backdrop of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and China’s growing global influence. The three members further agreed to institutionalise the summit in the form of an annual event to continually improve the trilateral cooperation. This summit is important for a number of reasons. For one, it reiterates America’s role in the region with respect to China, which has previously been facilitating trilateral summits with Japan and the ROK. Additionally, the location of Camp David, with its historical precedents, signals the scale of the efforts being exerted towards achieving results on the part of all three leaders. This is especially relevant given the history of the bilateral relations between Japan and the ROK; while the US has maintained close bilateral ties and formal security alliances with each of the other members, both Japan and the ROK share deep-rooted historical grievances.
Their strained relations can be traced back to the imperial rule of Japan, officially lasting from 1910-45. The Korean Peninsula was subjected to harsh conditions under Japanese rule, and the South Korean people have regularly condemned the various colonial practices, including forced labour and the use of Korean “comfort women” in Japanese military brothels, amongst others. Amongst the major attempts at mediation, the internationally brokered Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation (1965) aimed to resolve longstanding disputes and help normalise relations between the two neighbouring countries. Foremost, it initiated mechanisms for Japan to compensate the Korean people for up to 300 million USD. Despite efforts, the bilateral relationship has been afflicted with various troubles throughout the years. A 2018 ruling by the Korean Supreme Court sparked fresh agitation over the compensation to Korean people used in forced labour in Japanese factories. While the current South Korean government has made efforts to resolve the dispute, and these efforts have been highly appreciated by Japan, the Korean public has denounced them as appeasement policies.
The Camp David summit comes at a time when multiple interests threaten the balance, and national interests encouraging alternative camps will only exacerbate the growing international insecurity.
Other disputes linked to the colonial era include the Dokdo/Takeshima Islets dispute. Both sides dispute the other’s claims over the islets in the East Sea. Since Japan’s annexation of the islets in 1905, the territory has sparked intense rivalry year after year. Recently, the military drills conducted by the ROK in the area were also followed by protests from the Japanese side. And where this dispute is significant in the bilateral context, it also offers parallels for other disputes between Japan and its neighbours. Relinquishing claims over these islets can weaken Japan’s stance in the case of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Kuril Islands disputes with China and Russia, respectively.
Recent rapprochement is driven by regional security concerns and political changes, with cautious hope for improved security collaboration and South Korea’s involvement in the Quad partnership, yet historical complexities warrant vigilance. The growing closeness between the two, despite these issues, is conducive to the national security of the partners yet may prove counterproductive to regional security. The ROK, being aligned on the issues and threats emanating from North Korea and China, is a crucial partner. The tripartite summit is crucial for improving defence ties where increasing animosity in the region does little to allay fears.
From the American perspective, strengthening bilateral relations between Japan and the ROK allows it to underplay China’s regional influence. As per the three countries’ joint statements, geopolitical competition and nuclear provocations are among the shared threats. The trilateral commitment thus centres around collective security and interests. In addition to boosting economic development, the trilateral summit aims to advance a rules-based international order. This statement also hints at the vision that the three countries share with regard to the rise of an alternative order. Japan’s security concerns regarding China and its Global Security Initiative (GSI) have already been addressed through the former’s National Security Strategy (NSS). This radical change in Japan’s military posturing and the trilateral summit, when viewed against the background of the evolving global security architecture, including developments like the AUKUS and QUAD, indicates the increasing hostility. This bloc-making behaviour taking root in Asia can threaten the fragile system of overlapping and competing interests.
China has often described its security vision as being based on indivisible security, and the recent summit has been criticised as a catalyst for bloc confrontation. China also views this trilateral meeting as directly threatening its domestic interests where the issue of Taiwan is concerned. In comparison, the multifaceted trilateral cooperation between China, Japan and the ROK has also failed to achieve comprehensive results. Tracing its history back to 1999, it was institutionalised in 2011 through the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS). Despite this, the trilateral meetings at the highest level have not been as regular, and China’s role is being reduced increasingly in the face of initiatives like the recent Camp David Summit. Despite the attempts at partnership and alliance-making, security in Asia has remained elusive at best, with its diverse composition and multiple fault lines. The Camp David summit comes at a time when multiple interests threaten the balance, and national interests encouraging alternative camps will only exacerbate the growing international insecurity.