Biden to host South Korean and Japanese leaders at Camp David

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TOKYO — President Biden will host his Japanese and South Korean counterparts at Camp David in Maryland on Friday, the first time the three nations’ leaders will hold a stand-alone meeting to discuss trilateral issues.

The summit reflects the way rising threats in the region — notably from China and North Korea — are drawing the United States and its two most important Asian allies steadily closer together.

The three leaders are expected to affirm publicly for the first time that their nations’ security is linked, and commit to consulting each other in the event of a regional security crisis.

Though the meeting will not result in a NATO-style collective defense pact, it nonetheless will send a powerful political message to Beijing and Pyongyang, analysts said.

“The message is, the three can’t be divided and conquered,” said Danny Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for Asia, now vice president for international studies at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “And that as powerful as the United States military is, that power is increasingly magnified by the strength of what Japan and [South] Korea contribute.”

The Biden administration views its relationships with Japan and South Korea as crucial to countering China’s military aggression and economic coercion, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At the same time, Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang are banding closer together in an effort to diminish U.S. influence in the region.

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The meeting will also mark a significant milestone in convening two major U.S. treaty allies whose historical frictions with one another have complicated efforts to forge a trilateral partnership.

South Korea and Japan do not have a formal security alliance, and their long-standing disputes have hampered American efforts to collaborate against joint threats in the region.

“The cooperative bond between South Korea, United States and Japan has been restored,” said Shin Kak-soo, South Korea’s ambassador to Japan from 2011 to 2013, during a previous conservative administration. “This is a turning point.”

Such a meeting was hard to imagine just a year ago, especially at a site synonymous with peace negotiations, thanks to the 1978 Israel-Egypt accords.

Relations between Japan and South Korea sank to bitter lows after the liberal Moon Jae-in became president of the South in 2017, pursuing closer ties with the North and a hard-line stance toward Japan.

But when the conservative Yoon Suk Yeol took office in May last year, he resolved to move beyond historical disputes and aggressively toward rapprochement with Japan. Most notably, he made a historic decision this spring to work through differences with Japan over the latter’s use of forced Korean labor during its occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Those steps have helped pave the way for the agreement and commitments to be announced Friday.

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They include the formalization of deeper ties in traditional and economic security.

Occasional trilateral military exercises will become annual, ballistic missile defense exercises will become regular and data-sharing on North Korean ballistic missile threats will grow more robust. A secure hotline will be set up to allow the leaders to be in touch in crises and in peacetime.

Officials from the three countries say their goal is to institutionalize their partnership, including by establishing annual leader-level meetings, to withstand changes in domestic politics.

“This is a major move on the chessboard that just doesn’t kind of come and go,” said Rahm Emanuel, U.S. ambassador to Japan. “It’s creating both a new normal that’s been institutionalized into the politics of each country, and a new fact in the geostrategic landscape.”

The three countries will also work to align their security assistance efforts to Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands to ensure that training and resources are complementary.

On economic security, officials expect to announce initiatives to shore up supply chains for critical technologies, such as semiconductors and EV batteries, including through an “early warning” system about shortages.

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In a speech on Tuesday commemorating the 78th anniversary of South Korea’s liberation from Japan’s wartime occupation, Yoon appeared to preview themes likely to be aired at Camp David.

“South Korea and Japan are now partners who share universal values and pursue common interests,” Yoon said. He noted that the “significance” of U.S.-Japan-South Korea security cooperation is growing on the Korean Peninsula and in the region.

Perhaps most significantly, he said that the seven rear bases provided to the United Nations Command by Japan “serve as the greatest deterrent” preventing North Korea from invading the south.

“He’s basically saying, ‘Japan is key to South Korea’s security,’” said Christopher Johnstone, Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The political tensions in the Japan-South Korea relationship that have slowed the flow of defense-related information between Tokyo and Seoul “have been a significant burden to U.S. military planners and operators,” said Russel, a former senior U.S. diplomat in Asia. “Removing that set of obstacles really opens the door to much more effective defense and therefore more potent deterrence.”

But the current moment is fragile. Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida both face stagnant approval ratings. Yoon’s efforts may be hampered after the legislative elections in 2024, if his party cannot win a majority. Former U.S. president Donald Trump, who has questioned the value of alliances and was lukewarm on maintaining relationships with both nations, could be reelected next year.

The South Korean public remains skeptical and there is not a high level of trust between the two countries’ militaries, said Choi Eunmi, a Korea-Japan relations expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

“Military cooperation between South Korea and Japan is difficult to accept emotionally by the Korean people,” she said. “The United States may hope for the security cooperation between South Korea and Japan to be upgraded to the level of a quasi-alliance, but rushing it will rather backfire from both sides.”

While Yoon and Kishida did the hard work of fence-mending, the Biden administration has brokered frequent trilateral meetings among the three countries’ foreign ministers, defense secretaries, intelligence chiefs and economic officials. Diplomats from the three nations have met more than 40 times in the past year in an effort to normalize routine conversations.

Geopolitically, the summit probably will unnerve Beijing and Pyongyang, analysts said. China has long counted on divisions between Seoul and Tokyo to complicate relations with the United States, analysts say.

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Although Japan and South Korea are wary of waging an overt economic or strategic fight with China, their biggest trading partner, both countries are finding value in cementing ties with the United States.

“Strong defense means a better, stronger negotiating position, from our perspective,” said Narushige Michishita, a Japan-Korea defense expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

“If the three countries fail to cooperate closely, that would make it possible for China to drive a wedge among them,” he said. “But when we are working very closely together, China will not be able to exploit the differences and disagreements among us for political or diplomatic purposes.”

The most significant immediate result of the summit will be the message it sends to Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping, said Kuni Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat who is now research director at Tokyo’s Canon Institute for Global Studies.

“The issue is sending the right political message to the right people,” he said. “There’s an urgent need in our part of the world to do that.”

Nakashima reported from Washington. Toluse Olorunnipa in Washington contributed to this report.

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