Biden further said that everyone should be appreciative of the families who have been "reunited with loved ones."
I n a far-reaching initiative, the US President Joe Biden hosted a trilateral summit on 18 August 2023 at the presidential retreat at Camp David with the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol to bolster security in the Northeast Asian region. The main trigger was to deal with North Korea’s weapons development and missile firings as well as China’s assertiveness on a host of regional issues. Biden had expressed his trilateral summit idea with Kishida and Yoon when he had met both in Hiroshima during the G7 summit hosted by Japan.
A comparison of Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump and Yoon’s predecessor Moon Jae-In with regard to policy towards North Korea may be necessary to understand how the American president sees his North Korean policy differently. When Trump assumed the US presidency, he chose the America First doctrine under which he pulled the US out from various international treaties and regional engagements. Trump is also remembered for his mercurial relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, whom he once threatened with fire and fury, but later fell in love with. Thanks to Moon’s initiative, Trump had two summits with the North Korean leader in Singapore and then in Hanoi, both without any tangible outcome. Japan’s former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo failed to have a summit with Kim despite many efforts. Kishida is unlikely to succeed either.
Now, the three new leaders are seeking different ways to address North Korea’s nuclear and missile issues. Biden was encouraged with the detente reached by Kishida and Yoon in the long frosty ties between Japan and South Korea. Emboldened by this welcome development, Biden hosted the Camp David summit to institutionalise the rapid progress in Japan-South Korea ties. This was possible following Yoon’s bold decision to resolve the World War II-era labour issue between Japan and South Korea.
It may be recalled that in March 2023, Yoon decided to compensate Korean victims of Japanese forced labour by using South Korean funds. Five years ago, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies should compensate these victims. The Japanese government however opposed this court ruling by insisting that this issue had already been resolved during the 1965 Japan-South Korea normalisation process. In a path-breaking move, Yoon resolved this long-festering row over thorny wartime issues that had troubled bilateral ties for a long time because of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula that spilled over into the trade arena.
This does not mean to suggest that the people in Japan and South Korea happily accepted this peace move by Yoon. While the people in South Korea alleged that Yoon conceded too much to Japan without reciprocal return, Japan stuck to its position that all disputes were already resolved in 1965 and there was no room for renegotiation. The door was kept open for Japanese companies to make voluntary payment of compensation if the companies so wished.
Against this pleasant backdrop, Biden played a master stroke in hosting the trilateral summit where the three leaders announced a new era of cooperation. The leaders were quick to offer reassurances that their historic pledge would have staying power. This is a debatable issue and there is no guarantee the leaders who succeed the three would see the issue from the same prism. Sustaining domestic political support would remain the biggest challenge in the future. If like-minded leaders do not come to power in the future, a reversal of the present understanding would not be unthinkable.
Yoon has three more years in office and cannot have another term as South Korean law limits the tenure of a President to one term. Kishida can continue to remain in power if he successfully addresses the domestic issues affecting Japan. His bid to stay in power for long could go either way. Biden expects to bid for a second and final term but there is no guarantee that he would succeed. This uncertainty could leave the future of the Camp David summit outcome in limbo.
This being said, there are a confluence of factors that could give the summit commitment a long rope: rising concerns over China’s moves near Taiwan and in the East and South China Seas, as well as alarm at the pace of North Korea’s nuclear and missile breakthroughs. These factors could lead to a durable threeway relationship.
The trilateral cooperation is not a military alliance as alleged by China. China has criticised Biden for hosting the summit to form a mini-NATO in the IndoPacific to contain China and strangulate North Korea. Such a perspective is fallacious as under Article 5 of NATO, a member is obligated to come to the rescue of another member militarily if it comes under attack. No such discussion or agreement to this effect took place during the Camp David summit.
On the contrary, the trilateral cooperation spelled out a broad swath of areas as diverse as diplomacy, technology education and security. These are ambitious ideals whose success requires consistency, credibility and sustainability.
Besides agreeing to have annual summits, the three leaders also agreed to have annual trilateral meetings of their defence chiefs, top diplomats and senior economic officials. They also agreed on a multiyear framework that included annual, namely multi-domain, joint military exercises, together with a plan to share real-time missile warning data by the end of 2023.
This will constitute an unprecedented level of trilateral defence cooperation, claimed the White House. The ambit of the joint statement covered a wide range of issues such as security cooperation, economic cooperation, technology cooperation, development cooperation, consultation and exercises and thus went far beyond one-off tieups.
The three leaders unveiled the Camp David Principles, a broad brush document in which they committed to shared principles to guide the partnership for years to come as they embark on a new chapter together. Such commitments override the uncertainty if there is a leadership change in any of the three partner countries which might view the Camp David Principles differently. (To be concluded)
The writer is former Senior Fellow at MP-IDSA and PMML, both at New Delhi