Washington, DC – The leaders of South Korea, Japan and the United States are set to meet at the US presidential retreat Camp David later this week for a summit that officials from the three countries say aims to usher in a new era of trilateral relations.
The event on Friday represents the first time that US President Joe Biden, his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will hold an official joint summit – beyond the less formal talks that have been held on the sidelines of international gatherings.
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It comes amid a flurry of recent diplomatic breakthroughs between Japan and South Korea, which have had fraught relations since the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula.
White House National Security Adviser John Kirby on Wednesday hailed the “political courage” of Kishida and Yoon, saying the two leaders were laying the groundwork for stronger security, economic and other forms of coordination.
“Our three countries will announce significant initiatives on Friday which will help cement our trilateral cooperation going forward,” Kirby told reporters.
“These initiatives will take our trilateral relationship to new heights as we work together to deliver benefits for our people and for people across the region.”
A day earlier, in a speech marking the 78th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, Yoon said the Camp David summit “will set a new milestone in trilateral cooperation contributing to peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific region”.
The meeting comes amid concerns about an increase in North Korean missile tests and China’s approach to the Indo-Pacific region, which the US has decried as “increasingly assertive”. In turn, polls have shown public opinion of Beijing tanking in Japan and South Korea.
The location of the summit is also notable, as Camp David has historically been a site where historic – and controversial – foreign policy agreements are reached.
The US-Japan-South Korea talks also mark the first time a major diplomatic event will take place at the Maryland retreat since 2015 and the first time that Biden will host any leaders at the site since he took office in early 2021.
Kirby told reporters the location was chosen to “signify and to demonstrate how seriously” Biden takes the US’s relationship with Japan and South Korea.
“That’s what Camp David sort of stands for. It stands for that significance. It stands for that gravity and that weight,” he said.
Japan-South Korea relations
Poor relations between Japan and South Korea have long posed a stumbling block to Washington’s approach towards China and the wider Indo-Pacific region, according to analysts.
However, recent diplomatic overtures between the two nations – spearheaded by South Korea’s Yoon and well-received by Japan’s Kishida – have created a new opportunity for the US, said Yuki Tatsumi, director of the Japan programme at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, DC.
Washington, which Tatsumi said historically has been averse to stepping between Seoul and Tokyo, currently has bilateral security alliances with both nations. Japan and South Korea also are among the US’s top trading partners, while they also maintain close economic ties with China.
“The biggest challenge in the trilateral relationship has always been the volatility in the relationship between Japan and South Korea,” Tatsumi told Al Jazeera.
“Prior to the Yoon administration coming in [in 2022], the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul probably had been the worst it has ever been since the two countries normalised their relationship back in the 1960s,” she said.
“So the credit really goes to President Yoon, who really took a big political risk domestically.”
Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has helped to generally shore up support for regional alliances in East Asia, with countries eyeing the destabilising implications of a possible invasion of Taiwan by an emboldened China. Beijing claims the self-governing island as part of its territory.
“To an extent, [fear of an invasion] really reinforces on the minds of the Korean public the importance of having a robust alliance with the United States, and in the minds of the Japanese public, it creates room to see the necessity of improving relations with Seoul,” Tatsumi said.
‘Initiatives that have real teeth’
The Beijing-backed Global Times news outlet wrote in an op-ed last week that the summit was part of the “US’ desire to build a ‘mini-NATO-style’ trilateral military alliance in Northeast Asia”. It also said on Wednesday that the talks “will sound the trumpet for moving into the ‘new Cold War'”.
The Biden administration has denied seeking a confrontation with China, sending a number of top US officials to the Chinese capital in recent months as part of a push to maintain open lines of communication and “manage competition”.
But ties between Beijing and Washington remain strained over a range of issues, from trade and the status of Taiwan to China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea and an ongoing US push against growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Earlier this week, the US State Department’s deputy spokesman, Vedant Patel, said the upcoming Camp David talks should not be seen as “provocative” or as “any kind of step or effort to incite tensions” with China.
“What this is about is deepening our partnership and collaboration on a number of areas that we believe are in the mutual, shared interest of our three countries,” Patel told reporters.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the summit will likely yield “concrete initiatives” in matters such as security, economic ties, development and humanitarian assistance, and emerging technologies.
Kirby also said the meeting will see “the leaders really buckle down and commit to a tangible, demonstrable set of initiatives that have real teeth”.
Nevertheless, the Reuters news agency, citing several US officials, reported that Friday’s summit is unlikely to produce a formal security agreement.
Instead, the three countries are more likely to agree to mutual understandings regarding regional security responsibilities, and commit to other measures, such as setting up a three-way hotline to communicate in times of crisis, the news agency said.
Tatsumi said the summit attendees will also be contending with the difficulty of establishing long-lasting cooperation given the “nature of political turnover” in the three countries and the historic volatility of Tokyo-Seoul relations.
Biden will be up for re-election next year, while a snap election could be triggered at any time in Japan. For its part, South Korea is not set to hold presidential elections until 2027.
Still, the trio will likely try to send a strong message of reassurance, while seeking to create mechanisms across various government agencies in their countries to make sure any initiatives can “endure” future political changes, she said.
Christopher Johnstone, the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), another think tank in the US capital, also acknowledged that steps towards building the trilateral relationship remain “fragile”.
“I think it’s fair to say that in South Korea, President Yoon’s efforts are still not widely popular. And in Japan there’s this constant refrain of scepticism that the improvement will be durable,” Johnstone said during a call with reporters this week.
“So I think the focus of this meeting and much is what is to come is to look for ways to institutionalise the progress that’s been made, and to make it harder for future leaders in any of these countries to walk away from it,” he said.