Camp David Trilateral Summit Cements US-Japan-ROK ‘Commitment to Consult’ in a Crisis

Amid the lush greenery of Catoctin Mountain Park, the U.S. presidential retreat Camp David will once again be the setting of a historic milestone in international diplomacy — the cementing of a trilateral alliance between the U.S. and its two main Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, to strengthen deterrence against North Korea and China.

The goal of Friday’s summit, hosted by President Joe Biden, is “to lock in trilateral engagement,” including a pledge by Washington, Tokyo and Seoul to create a three-way hotline and consult with one another during a regional crisis, a senior administration official told reporters in a briefing Thursday. The official spoke under condition of anonymity, as is customary when discussing foreign policy and security issues.

The three countries will commit that when faced with a regional contingency or threat they will immediately consult, share intelligence and align policy actions in tandem with one another, a second senior administration official said in the same briefing.

“What it seeks to acknowledge and build in its core is the fact that we do share a fundamentally interlinked security environment,” she said. “Something that poses a threat to any one of us fundamentally poses a threat to all of us.”

The second official insisted the pledge is not a formal military alliance or a collective defense commitment — as China and North Korea have called it. Pyongyang and Beijing have characterized the Camp David summit as Washington’s gambit to create a “mini-NATO” in Asia.

The duty to consult during crisis caps off a myriad of other trilateral defense cooperation pledges, including regular military exercises and ballistic missile drills, as well as new collaboration on economic security — strengthening semiconductor supply chains, cyber security and artificial intelligence. The three nations are also set to adopt the “Camp David Principles,” a series of values and norms on peace and prosperity within the Indo-Pacific region.

The deliverables of Friday’s summit are only possible after a détente in relations between South Korea and Japan, its former occupier, following months of diplomacy between the Yoon and Kishida governments to put aside their fraught history and mutual distrust to deal with more imminent mutual security challenges.

“Korea and Japan are now partners who share universal values and pursue common interests,” South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said earlier this week in a speech marking the 78th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan’s 35-year colonial rule that ended in 1945.

Hedge against reversal

Behind the U.S. push to institutionalize the engagement is the need to hedge against the risk of reversal if liked-minded leaders do not succeed Yoon or Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kushida or Biden.

With more than three years left in his term, Yoon is pushing hard right now also, said Karl Friedhoff, a fellow for Asia Studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “By the time he is out of office, this meeting will be seen as a normal part of Korea-Japan relations,” he told VOA.

Focusing on deterrence on North Korea and China is a way to gain domestic political support in Seoul and Tokyo.

“These are politically acceptable, and indeed, necessary mechanisms that should not have a lot of political pushbacks,” said Shihoko Goto, acting director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Japan and Korea recognize that the Indo-Pacific landscape is very tumultuous.”

Administration officials would not clarify whether the three-way consultation in the event of a regional crisis would include a contingency in the Taiwan Strait.

While a coordinated response to an attack from Beijing may be something that Washington envisions in the long term, South Korea is not as aligned with the U.S. as Japan is when it comes to the China threat, said Jeffrey Hornung, a senior political scientist specializing in East Asian security at the RAND Corporation.

“Given that it’s been difficult for Japan and Korea to really cooperate on most things, I think start with their mutual concern, which is North Korea,” he told VOA. “And maybe in the future, branch that out once they work the kinks out of their cooperation.”

South Korea has already indicated willingness to broaden the trilateral response.

Kim Tae-hyo, Korea’s principal deputy national security adviser, told reporters in Seoul on Thursday that cooperation will evolve from focusing on the North Korean threat to a more comprehensive one aiming to build “freedom, peace and prosperity throughout the Indo-Pacific region.”

Future summits

The leaders will commit that “future leaders will meet on an annual basis” without allowing them to “backtrack from the commitments” made at Camp David, the first senior administration official said.

“What we are seeking to do is not just lock in Japan and South Korea, but lock in the United States, to make clear to everyone that we are here to stay in the Indo Pacific region,” he added.

Locking it in matters. There is concern that American pledges of cooperation could be undone should Donald Trump be elected again in 2024.

Under his “America First” doctrine during his presidency, Trump withdrew the U.S. from various international treaties and regional engagements. The former president is also remembered for his mercurial relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom he once threatened with “fire and fury,” but later said he “fell in love” with.