Analysing the US-Japan-South Korea Trilateral Summit

The recent trilateral summit held at Camp David on 18 August 2023 brought together the leaders of the United States (US), Japan, and South Korea: President Biden, Prime Minister Kishida, and President Yoon, respectively. This summit holds immense significance as it sought to navigate the intricate dynamics of East Asia while fostering trilateral cooperation and regional stability. However, despite its focus on “peace,” concerns have arisen regarding the potential formation of a “mini NATO” alliance in Asia-Pacific, which could disrupt peace in the region. The joint statement issued by the US, South Korea and Japan has raised worries about any possible interference in the Taiwan issue and the resurgence of Cold War mentality, both of which could have serious implications for the overall stability of the region.

The summit represents a historic occasion, standing as the inaugural independent assembly of these leaders and serving as the first summit of foreign leaders at Camp David under the Biden administration. The decision by President Biden to host Prime Minister Kishida and President Yoon at Camp David underscores a remarkable display of unity, highlighting the growing significance of the vital allies. In light of the challenges posed by China, the US administration has actively sought to cultivate partnerships to address the concerns. Notably, South Korea’s National Security First Deputy Advisor, Kim Tae-hyo, hailed the summit as a significant advancement in 21st-century security diplomacy, emphasising its pivotal role in reaffirming cooperative efforts across the Indo-Pacific region. Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin III echoed this statement, deeming the meeting historic and stressing the importance of trilateral cooperation for promoting security, prosperity and an open Indo-Pacific.

China is labelling the summit as an attempt to establish “mini NATO”, while North Korea is accusing the US of developing an “Asian version of NATO”, thus highlighting the complex geopolitical landscape.

Throughout the summit, the three nation’s leaders gathered with the goal of strengthening their security alliance in response to escalating regional challenges. These challenges include the growing influence of China in the region and the imminent nuclear threat emanating from North Korea. Notably, the leaders collectively denounced China’s aggressive actions in the region and expressed support for peace and stability, particularly concerning the Taiwan issue. Despite decades of historical grievances and strained relations, South Korea and Japan tentatively moved towards normalisation. They jointly condemned China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, pledged data sharing on North Korea’s missiles, and discussed concerns about supply chains. The establishment of a “Commitment to Consult” marked coordinated responses without binding defence obligations. The scheduling of the second summit for the following year highlights their ongoing cooperation in the face of complex security challenges.

China, a vital trading partner for both South Korea and Japan, has expressed its displeasure with the summit, further adding complexity to the region’s intricate dynamics. Besides, the US has been adding impetus to reduce the tension between South Korea and Japan. Amidst ongoing regional hostilities, expanding Chinese diplomacy and North Korea’s nuclear progress drive the US to reinforce bonds with historical allies South Korea and Japan, given their commitment to the alliance’s security goals. Thus, navigating the balance between economic interests and security priorities presents a challenge for these nations moving forward.

The tension following the Camp David summit has escalated swiftly, drawing strong condemnation from Beijing, which has accused the summit of sowing discord and fostering a “China threat” narrative. China has expressed strong dissatisfaction and opposition to what it saw as an attempt to create a geopolitical alliance under the US influence. The perceived narrative was reinforced when China conducted naval drills in Taiwanese waters shortly after the summit concluded, triggering accusations of intimidation by Taiwan and condemnations from Japan, South Korea, and the US. Against this backdrop, North Korea’s persistent missile tests have added another level of volatility, with some tests encroaching upon Japanese waters and alleged drone incursions into South Korean airspace, further unsettling the situation.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, has cautioned against prioritising individual security over collective interests, advocating for collaboration with China to maintain regional vitality and autonomy amidst tensions. Comparisons between the Camp David forum and an Asian NATO have been made, reflecting concerns about establishing a regional security alliance. North Korean Defence Minister Kang Sun-nam has criticised the meeting, accusing the US of escalating towards an East Asian nuclear conflict. Likewise, Feng Shaolei, Director of the Center for Russian Studies at East China Normal University, has suggested that NATO could potentially hinder the region’s development, akin to the situation in Ukraine.

In response to Chinese criticism of a trilateral summit, US officials have clarified that the talk addressed regional security, including China’s action in the South China Sea. Beijing’s protests were met with summit leaders’ emphasis on peace in the Taiwan Strait, countering China’s actions. The US has expressed concern about China and Russia in situations particularly like Ukraine and Taiwan. China’s naval drills near Taiwan have further heightened these concerns.

However, China’s scepticism persists, as it has accused the US of orchestrating containment efforts. The summit, aimed at boosting trilateral cooperation, has become a point of contention, perceived as a potential precursor of an Indo-Pacific NATO that risks destabilising the region. While the summit sought to strengthen collaboration, experts have expressed apprehension about the emergence of a US-led multilateral military alliance and the potential for a “new Cold War” with China. Nonetheless, doubts remain about the sustainability of the Japan-South Korea reconciliation necessary for the trilateral unity.

Despite assurance to the contrary, China perceives the security cooperation’s focus to be on countering its influence and containing its rise. The deepened trilateral ties and agreement on joint activities have fuelled suspicions, prompting China to respond with closer military collaboration with Russia, increased pressure on Taiwan, and assertive action in the South China Sea.

The trilateral summit’s objectives to enhance reassurance and deterrence call for a critical consideration of China’s and North Korea’s perspectives. Both nations perceive it as part of a containment strategy, which could have a ripple effect on regional dynamics. China is labelling the summit as an attempt to establish “mini NATO”, while North Korea is accusing the US of developing an “Asian version of NATO”, thus highlighting the complex geopolitical landscape.

The notion of trilateral cooperation among the US, Japan, and South Korea to ensure peace, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific is promising. However, it also raises concerns regarding the prospective emergence of a “mini-NATO”, which could inadvertently lead to polarisation and militarisation, intensifying the existing conflicts. While strengthening ties could address regional challenges, the parallel to NATO might trigger counterproductive responses from neighbouring nations, exacerbating tension and mistrust. In navigating this delicate context, prioritising dialogue and collaboration over hasty alliance formation is essential. Striking a balance between collective security and comprehensive diplomacy will be crucial to preserve diplomatic avenues and avoid confrontational outcomes. The Camp David summit’s goal of enhancing collaboration must carefully weigh this consideration to safeguard the region’s interests.

Bashira Omeed

Bashira Omeed serves as an Assistant Editor and Researcher at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She has an MPhil in International Relations from NDU, Islamabad. Her research focuses on diplomatic relations, defence and security, and international affairs.

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