East Asia Compass
US, Japan, and South Korea at Camp David: The Implications of Trilateral Summitry
18 Aug, 2023 · 5858
Dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra identifies two potential stumbling blocks that could challenge trilateral progress
The trilateral meeting between US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, at Camp David on 18 August 2023, is being considered “historic.” It is the first standalone summit between these three leaders. The meeting shows their commitment to forge a seamless trilateral partnership to deal with not only North Korean nuclear and missile threats but also growing Chinese and Russian missile development and aggressive behaviour. Biden and Kishida are also going to have a separate meeting on the sidelines of the summit to discuss the development of a new missile defence system. China and Russia have made important progress in developing hypersonic weapons, and speculations suggest that China may have already deployed these missiles that could reach US bases in the Pacific.
Leadership and officials from the US, Japan, and South Korea have made several attempts in the recent past to meet in person and coordinate approaches towards changing regional dynamics. Earlier, on 11 July 2023, top US, Japanese, and South Korean generals had a trilateral meeting in Hawaii, which took place after another such meeting in March 2022. On 16 July 2023, the three countries conducted joint missile defence exercises in the Sea of Japan, which was in fact the fourth joint exercise to be held after President Yoon Suk-yeol took power in South Korea. More recently, the three countries, along with a few other partners, have shown greater willingness to cooperate among themselves and overtly contest rivals, particularly in the areas of critical technology, intelligence-sharing, trade promotion, diversification of supply chains, space, critical minerals, and de-risking with regard to China.
The question, however, is whether the three countries would be able to sustain this process of cooperation and coordination, as South Korea-Japan relations have a propensity to be derailed by historical, territorial, and emotive issues. Also, it would also be important to see if the Biden administration is able to convince Tokyo and Seoul that its commitment to their security won’t be diluted, as it was during the Trump period.
Japan and South Korea share territorial disagreements, and Yoon Suk-yeol’s attempts to reach out to Japan, though a move from the top, is devoid of popular support in South Korea. As per different opinion polls, 60 to 65 per cent of South Koreans polled don’t agree with the Yoon Suk-yeol government’s Japan policy, in which he has been “unilaterally conceding” to Japanese demands. In such a case, it won’t be easy to expect the same South Korean approach towards Japan to continue after 2027, when there would be a change in leadership.
Moreover, there is a lot of South Korean opposition to Japan's move to discharge water from the Fukushima nuclear reactor into the sea. Although the release of the water is in compliance with IAEA standards, and a 21-member South Korean delegation has done an on-site inspection as verification May 2023, South Koreans are concerned about the health consequences of the release. In an opinion poll in the greater Seoul region, around 70 per cent of South Koreans polled said that they are against Japan’s decision.
The Yoon Suk-yeol administration also had no choice but to criticise Japan’s newly released annual defence white paper, adopted by the cabinet on 28 July 2023, which claimed Takeshima/Dokdo Islands as Japanese territory. Earlier, on 7 July 2023, Japan registered its protest of South Korea’s military drills on the same island. This shows that their contested issues are deep-rooted, and this mistrust could derail the progress attempted through the trilateral summit. Just three days before Camp David, Kishida’s ritual offerings and his cabinet member, Sanae Takaichi’s homage at the Yakusuni Shrine were criticised in South Korea.
Importantly, the US is keen to encourage its two allies in the region to overcome their differences and work together in the US contestation with China and other disruptors. There are apprehensions, however, that if the US elects Donald Trump or someone similar as the US president, and they demand once again a transactional relationship with Japan and South Korea, the progress made by the Camp David summit may be in jeopardy. The trilateral must be informed by these dynamics—and it does not appear to be a smooth sailing future journey.
While the Camp David summit is undoubtedly an important move by the US, Japan, and South Korea to clearly signal intent, the sustenance of the Japan-South Korea rapprochement will remain an issue of concern. Furthermore, US commitment to Japan and South Korea’s security, if there is a change of leadership in the US, will be another stumbling block in the process.
Dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, SIS, JNU, & Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.
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