The Japan-South Korea-US Summit: A Game Changer for the Indo-Pacific

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The Japan-South Korea-US Summit: A Game Changer for the Indo-Pacific

Different threat perceptions as well as Japan’s colonization of Korea and atrocities committed during World War II have made even basic trilateral cooperation difficult – until now. 

The Japan-South Korea-US Summit: A Game Changer for the Indo-Pacific

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left), U.S. President Joe Biden (center), and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio (right) during their summit at Camp David, U.S., Aug. 18, 2023.

Credit: Official White House photo

On August 18, U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol held a historic three-way summit at Camp David, a presidential retreat in the U.S. state of Maryland. In a major diplomatic achievement for all three leaders, the United States, Japan, and South Korea agreed to a broad range of measures to enhance defense and economic security coordination between the Japan-U.S. alliance and the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

Despite Chinese accusations of a “Pacific NATO,” this is not a new, formal alliance. There is no commitment for each party to come to the defense of the other, aside from the existing defense treaties separately linking the U.S. to Japan and South Korea. But the “duty to consult” security pledge – to share information, align messaging, and coordinate response actions with each other in the face of a threat or crisis – is an important step forward for the two U.S. allies. Different threat perceptions as well as Japan’s colonization of Korea and atrocities committed during World War II have made even basic cooperation impossible – until now. 

Additional steps that the three countries agreed to include (among others, see the Joint Statement for the full list): initiating and regularizing trilateral meetings between the leaders, foreign ministers, defense ministers, national security advisors, finance ministers, and industry ministers; launching an annual trilateral Indo-Pacific Dialogue; discussing ways to coordinate anti-disinformation efforts; holding annual, named, multi-domain trilateral exercises on a regular basis; operationalizing the sharing of missile warning data on North Korea in real-time; and pursuing enhanced ballistic missile defense cooperation. 

As The Japan News notes, the three-party framework has traditionally focused on a joint response to North Korea, but this trilateral summit expanded the agenda to cover the entire Indo-Pacific region. 

Concern over North Korea is still very much present, as reflected in one of the paragraphs from the Camp David Principles

We stand united in our commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in accordance with relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions. We remain committed to dialogue with the DPRK with no preconditions. We seek to address human rights and humanitarian issues, including the immediate resolution of the issues of abductions, detainees, and unrepatriated prisoners of war. We support a unified Korean Peninsula that is free and at peace.

The reference to abductions highlights the continued importance of this issue for Japan. 

Meanwhile, the increasing emphasis on China is hinted at in different sections of the Camp David Principles. It’s there in the opening: 

As Indo-Pacific nations, Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and the United States will continue to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific based on a respect for international law, shared norms, and common values. We strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion

While China is not named here, it is the Indo-Pacific country generally accused of attempting to “change the status quo by force.” 

Similarly, the stated commitment to the U.N. Charter also includes language that implies concern over China’s behavior:

We are unflinching in our commitment to uphold the principles of the UN Charter, particularly those relating to sovereignty, territorial integrity, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the use of force. A threat to these principles anywhere undermines respect for them everywhere. As responsible state actors, we seek to promote the rule of law and to ensure regional and international security so all can flourish.

There is also a specific reference to Taiwan:

We reaffirm the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of security and prosperity in the international community. Recognizing that there is no change in our basic positions on Taiwan, we call for a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.

The Joint Statement is more explicit in addressing China, with about a paragraph each dedicated to China and North Korea. 

Leaders of the three countries in the past have only met on the sidelines of larger gatherings. This is the first standalone summit between the three leaders, making it clear to the Chinese leadership – as well as Japanese and Korean conservatives – that these three leaders are serious about sustaining cooperation. Meetings will no longer be set passively according to opportunities presented by the diplomatic calendar when it is convenient and politically less costly. Meetings will no longer hinge on last minute domestic political calculations or be hijacked by domestic political flareups. 

Many analysts have noted that the Biden administration is seeking to lock in institutional structures of cooperation before the 2024 presidential election. Biden may also be hoping for a diplomatic win to tout on the campaign trail. Institutionalization is also important to insure against an unfavorable change of government in Japan and South Korea, though it will be interesting to observe whether Japanese and Korean voters will reward their respective leaders electorally. 

Japan must hold legislative elections before October 2025. While the Kishida Cabinet’s falling approval ratings points toward delaying an election until his and his party’s popularity recovers, a desire to blunt the rise of a rival party, the Nippon Ishin no Kai, with an early snap election may be too tempting to resist. Although there was a lot of focus on how the G-7 Hiroshima Summit might help Kishida domestically, there has been less speculation regarding the positive effects of his participation in the Camp David Summit. 

Until the next international crisis, it is likely that the average Japanese voter will care more for, say, the numerous problems in the My Number database than cooperation with the United States and South Korea. Kishida made the right move for his country, even if domestic political benefits may not manifest immediately – or ever. 

On the sidelines of the historical three-way summit, Kishida also had bilateral talks with Biden and with Yoon. Kishida and Biden agreed to jointly develop a new type of missile to intercept hypersonic weapons; cooperate to prevent groundless rumors related to Japan’s discharging treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean; continue supporting Ukraine; and implement anti-Russian sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine. 

Kishida and Yoon agreed to resume talks between their respective foreign vice ministers and continue preparations for high-level economic discussions.