SEOUL, South Korea — Don’t look for a “NEATO” — a NATO-like military alliance for Northeast Asia — to emerge from President Biden’s Camp David summit on Friday with the leaders of South Korea and Japan, but the three heads of state will be under pressure to formalize the foundations of trilateral strategic and economic cooperation.
President Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol have met on the sidelines of other diplomatic gatherings, but the gathering Friday is touted as the allies’ first-ever dedicated trilateral summit.
“I think what you can expect to see coming out of this summit is a collaboration on a trilateral basis that is further institutionalized in a variety of ways, to include regular meetings at … senior levels in our governments,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week. “Japan and South Korea are core allies — not just in the region, but around the world.”
The summit would have seemed unlikely just a few years ago. Although Japan and South Korea have solid alliances with the U.S., their fraught bilateral relations have persistently complicated Washington’s attempts to present a united front in the region against adversaries such as North Korea and China.
The summit takes advantage of the unusual amity between the Kishida and Yoon administrations, which have overcome distrust dating back to Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula in the decades before World War II.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday that the summit will take “relationships with each other and amongst each other to a whole new level.” Whether the alliance will become more formal and long-term is uncertain.
The trilateral meeting has raised hackles in Beijing and Pyongyang.
China’s state-controlled Global Times news website accused the three leaders of colluding to create a “mini-NATO” that would be “destructive to regional security.” Russia’s Tass news agency reported that North Korean Defense Minister Kang Sun-nam told a security conference in Moscow this week that the Biden administration was driving the region to the verge of nuclear war.
The sharp criticisms point to a growing security divide in the Indo-Pacific region, pitting authoritarian, transcontinental powers China, Russia and their partners against democratic, peripheral powers in U.S.-allied Western Europe and Northeast Asia.
The need for speed
The three leaders at Camp David have much to discuss tactically, including joint drills and nuclear arms sharing. They also have pressing reasons to strike political deals, said Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council point man on East Asia.
The summit aims “to lock in trilateral engagement both now and in the future,” he told the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, “not just the near future, but the far future.”
Without concrete commitments, successive administrations in all three nations could roll back trilateral cooperation.
Japan looks stable. The Liberal Democratic Party has been in power since 2012 and has consistently pursued a stronger defense and sharper security profile since the Shinzo Abe administration.
Japanese voters have accepted, largely without protest, a creeping strategy of rearming and upgrading defense doctrines.
“There are questions about Kishida’s popularity, so I am not so sure he would be willing to take political risks,” said James Kim, an analyst of public opinion in South Korea and Japan who lectures at Columbia University. “But the LDP is not likely to be overturned.”
The domestic politics in South Korea are trickier. The conservative Mr. Yoon has surprised many with his bold and radical policy of upgrading relations with Tokyo. Anti-Japanese sentiment is still powerful, and Mr. Yoon leads the most pro-Japanese administration since democratization in 1987. Prime Minister Moon Jae-in, who stepped down last year, had perhaps the most anti-Japanese administration.
With protests muted, Mr. Yoon seeks to lock in his pro-Japanese policies before his single term ends in 2027. South Korean political vengeance has put former presidents and officials behind bars, and Mr. Yoon’s parliamentary support could be slashed in the general election in April.
Noting that domestic reforms are stalled in the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Mr. Kim said Mr. Yoon “needs to succeed in the election for him not to become a lame duck for the rest of this term.”
Mr. Biden also faces uncertainties. The Trump administration shook Asian allies by trying to question the value and the expense of U.S. military commitments in the region. The Biden administration has been building alliances, but a successive Trump administration could reverse those priorities.
“If that does happen, it would be catastrophic for the world order and international relations,” said Daniel Pinkston, an international relations professor at Troy University. “Japan, Korea and the U.S. have strong incentives to cooperate in security because of the dynamics of the threat environment.”
A full menu
Given the opportunities and constraints, analysts say, agreements among the three leaders will be intriguing.
“In terms of the complexity and history of NATO, you cannot transfer that template to the Indo-Pacific,” said Alex Neill, a security expert with the Pacific Forum. He said he expects Australia to join any such regional grouping.
Even so, the smorgasbord of issues at Camp David will require working groups to follow up on details.
Mr. Biden and his guests are expected to agree to a regular schedule of trilateral military exercises and increased sharing of missile intelligence and data.
Also on the agenda will be support for Ukraine and strategic coordination in the battle with China for influence over Pacific island territories. Neither Japan nor South Korea has agreed to send lethal military aid to Kyiv for its war against Russian invaders.
The three also are expected to talk about sensitive strategic technologies such as artificial intelligence and semiconductors. South Korea is the globe’s largest manufacturer of memory chips, and Japan is a leading supplier of components and manufacturing systems.
The leading trading partner of both Asian nations is China, a complicating factor in U.S. policy. Ironically, Beijing’s lengthening regional shadow is energizing Seoul and Tokyo’s surprising rapprochement. Five years ago, the two capitals were battling over trade, historical grievances and intelligence sharing.
“It is remarkable these discussions are taking place as, as recently as 2018, a Korean destroyer illuminated a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft with its target radar,” said Mr. Neill. “There has clearly been fence-mending, and the unifying factor is the regional security environment.”
• Andrew Salmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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