The United States and two of its closest allies in Asia on Friday announced renewed commitments in a show of solidarity and force in the face of an ascendant China. The leaders of the United States, South Korea and Japan put aside a fraught history as three of the most powerful democracies in the Pacific, a move likely to add strain to the already-tense relationship between the US and Beijing.
President Joe Biden’s summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at Camp David was meant to serve as a show of force as the countries grapple with persistent provocative behavior from North Korea and with China’s military and economic aggressions.
The announcements the leaders made afterward — including new military exercises and a hotline for crisis communications — reflected the current era of tension in Asia, with likeminded nations banding together in ways likely to only generate more animosity from Beijing.
Biden’s desire to strengthen alliances was a sign he doesn’t see the tension easing anytime soon.
Biden has sought to deepen ties with allies in the Indo-Pacific amid concerns about Beijing, and thanked his counterparts for their participation, offering effusive praise for the “political courage” on display.
While Biden stressed that the summit was not about China, the talks may stoke tensions with Beijing. On Friday, when asked about the trilateral meeting, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin said: “No country should seek its own security at the expense of other countries’ security interests and regional peace and stability,” adding the Asia-Pacific region shouldn’t be “turned into a wrestling ground for geopolitical competition.”
In a statement released after the summit’s conclusion, the three leaders announced a new “commitment to consult,” a three-way hotline, a commitment to conduct annual military exercises and share intelligence and a new annual trilateral summit.
The summit will fall short of a producing a three-way collective defense agreement but will underscore “that a challenge to any one of the countries is a challenge to all of them,” a senior administration official said. The new “commitment to consult” doesn’t supersede either of the mutual defense treaties the US has signed with both nations.
The gathering marks the first time Biden is hosting foreign leaders at the Camp David retreat, a site of historic diplomatic negotiations for past presidents.
The prospect of trilateral progress among the countries was not always a given. The relationship between Seoul and Tokyo is trailed by decades of tension and mistrust, including a dispute over forced labor by Japan during its occupation of Korea.
But in the face of persistent missile threats from North Korea and China’s military maneuvering in the region, Kishida and Yoon have gone to great lengths to put aside those differences, including hosting a fence-mending summit in March, the first of its kind in 12 years. US officials have credited that work as a key step in cementing the trilateral partnership once thought unimaginable.
“China’s entire strategy is based on the premise that America’s number one and number two ally in the region can’t get together and get on the same page,” Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan, said at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday.
Biden took a veiled swipe at Beijing’s influence by taking special care to pledge the three nations’ support “for international law, freedom of navigation, and a peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea,” and “our shared commitment to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits and addressing economic coercion.”
“This summit was not about China. That was not the purpose of the meeting, but … China obviously came up,” Biden said, adding that he hopes to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping this fall. “Not to say we don’t share concerns about the economic coercion, or heightened tensions caused by China, but this summit was really about our relationship with each other, and deepening cooperation across an entire range of issues that went well beyond just the immediate issues we raised.”
Biden said that “quite frankly,” a more peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region would “benefit everyone living there and around the world if we get it right.”
“It’s not just here,” he said. “It has a phenomenal impact. As you’ve seen from initiatives we’re announcing here today, just how committed we are to see this vision and take place.”
He said the leaders had “laid in place a long-term structure for a relationship that will last and have a phenomenal impact not just in Asia but through around the world.”
Biden also explicitly condemned “threats from (North Korea),” including cryptocurrency money laundering and potential arms transfers to Russia to assist in its invasion of Ukraine.
“Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister, this is the first summit I’ve hosted at Camp David as president – I can think of no more fitting location to begin the next era, our next era of cooperation, a place that has long symbolized the power of new beginnings and new possibilities,” Biden said.
In the joint statement, Biden, Kishida and Yoon affirmed the three countries’ trilateral partnership at what they called “a time of unparalleled opportunity for our countries and our citizens, and at a hinge point of history, when geopolitical competition, the climate crisis, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, and nuclear provocations test us.”
“This is a moment that requires unity and coordinated action from true partners, and it is a moment we intend to meet, together. Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States are determined to align our collective efforts because we believe our trilateral partnership advances the security and prosperity of all our people, the region, and the world,” the statement reads.
In the joint statement, the three leaders also expressed “concerns about actions inconsistent with the rules-based international order, which undermine regional peace and prosperity,” while singling out “the dangerous and aggressive behavior supporting unlawful maritime claims that we have recently witnessed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the South China Sea.”
And on North Korea, the three leaders “reaffirm our commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in accordance with relevant UNSC resolutions and urge the DPRK to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”
“We strongly condemn the DPRK’s unprecedented number of ballistic missile launches, including multiple intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches and conventional military actions that pose a grave threat to peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and beyond,” the statement says. “We express concern regarding the DPRK’s illicit cyber activities that fund its unlawful WMD and ballistic missile programs.”
The gathering at the secluded, wooded retreat highlights Biden’s mission of reinvigorating alliances in the wake of the tumultuous four years of his predecessor – a key argument from Biden’s 2020 campaign that’s extending into his reelection bid.
From the start of his administration, Biden has sought to draw Asian allies like Japan and South Korea closer, in part, to counter China. Biden’s first foreign leader visits at the White House were Japan and South Korea, and he visited the countries back-to-back in May 2022.
The leaders held trilateral meetings on the sidelines of last year’s NATO Summit in Madrid and at the G7 in Hiroshima in May, but the Camp David gathering was the first stand-alone summit for the three leaders. National security adviser Jake Sullivan has held yearly meetings with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts beginning with a sit-down in Annapolis, Maryland, less than three months into Biden’s time in office.
Biden has worked to foster his individual relationships and cooperation with South Korea and Japan. Biden and Kishida have touted efforts to strengthen their countries’ military alliance, and the two men have worked closely as the US has sought to rally allies against Russia’s war in Ukraine.
On Friday, Biden thanked Kishida for his “leadership, from day one” on the response to Russia’s invasion, which he said was “critical for making it clear that the consequences for war extend well beyond Europe.”
“If my memory serves me, well – I think it does, Mr. Prime Minister – we found ourselves in a circumstance where, when I called you about Ukraine, I didn’t have to convince you of anything,” Biden said.
During a state visit for South Korea at the White House in April, Biden and Yoon announced a new agreement to deter North Korean aggression, including a US commitment to temporarily deploy a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time since the 1980s.
The visit also included memorable personal touches as South Korea’s president serenaded dinner guests with a verse from “American Pie.” The president in return gifted Yoon a guitar signed by the musician responsible for the song, Don McLean. Yoon’s father, Yoon Ki Jung, passed away on Tuesday, just days before the South Korean president was set to travel to the US.
Despite the current closeness of all three nations, the White House has been mindful of potential rollbacks to this progress under future administrations in all three countries. During Friday’s news conference, Biden rebuffed the suggestion that his fellow leaders should be worried about the US’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific given former President Donald Trump’s comments suggesting he’d seek to reduce America’s footprint in the region should he win the 2024 election.
“This isn’t just about one summit – what makes today’s different is it’s actually launching a series of initiatives that are actually institutional changes in how we deal with one another,” Biden said.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.