Today, in a historic joint statement, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States announced their united commitment to strengthening their security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. Following the joint statement, CNAS experts provided their analysis and insights on the new trilateral partnership.
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Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer:
For more than a decade, governments in Japan and South Korea saw in each other more threat than opportunity. But Seoul and Tokyo do not actually pose danger to one another. Instead, both reside in a region where North Korea presents a genuine threat and China deep challenges. Today's Camp David summit marks a watershed moment in making that realization concrete.
The political symbolism of the trilateral summit is meaningful, and the specific commitments on military, economic and other cooperation represent important steps. The real tests will begin once President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida return home to face the domestic reactions to their warming ties. Reaching out to one another, even under US auspices, entails political risk and therefore significant courage. Both deserve praise for it. The administration also deserves credit for making today's meeting possible.
Most important will be the efforts at institutionalizing trilateral and bilateral Seoul-Tokyo ties. Military, intelligence, economic and development cooperation should be normal activities, not subject to the vicissitudes of changes in politics or government. Over the past years they have been anything but. Going forward, regular diplomatic meetings, defense exercises, intelligence sharing mechanisms, development assistance cooperation and more can help make such cooperation endure.
South Korea and Japan, each allied to the United States, are also natural allies of one another. Today's summit represents a major step toward realizing this truth.
Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
Today’s historic Camp David Summit between the United States, Japan, and South Korea reflects the three nations’ commitment to strengthening trilateral cooperation in the face of ongoing missile provocations from North Korea and intensifying security and economic competition between Washington and Beijing. With commitments to form a new working group to combat North Korean cyber threats, conduct annual multi-domain military exercises, operationalize real-time intelligence sharing on North Korean missile threats, and bolster supply chain resiliency initiatives, they are sending an unmistakable message that they will stand together against military aggression and economic coercion in the Indo-Pacific.
This level of trilateral cooperation would have been unimaginable just a few years ago and is testament to the leadership of both Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who have taken courageous steps to improve bilateral ties. In March, Yoon’s government announced that a Korean foundation—rather than Japanese companies, as the South Korean supreme court ordered in 2018 under Yoon’s predecessor—would compensate victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule over Korea. During a May visit to Seoul, Kishida acknowledged the suffering of Koreans during the Japanese occupation, saying it caused him personal anguish. Continued efforts from Yoon and Kishida to address historical tensions is necessary to sustain the momentum for trilateral cooperation with the United States.
Dr. Duyeon Kim, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
The Camp David summit is truly historic, unimaginable until now, because the Seoul-Tokyo relationship was always fraught with historical disputes miring the two legs of the triangle. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have both shown unprecedented leadership and political courage to begin resetting relations despite criticism and skepticism at home. This trilateral summit was an important opportunity to revive, upgrade and institutionalize three-way cooperation on shared threats and strategic interests at a pressing moment in regional stability and geopolitics. Their agreements are impressively substantive and comprehensive.
Biden, Yoon and Kishida have a chance to make even bigger history that lasts beyond a milestone meeting at Camp David. The biggest challenge will be having their respective governments implement the agreements proactively even when diplomatic spats arise between South Korea and Japan as well as beyond their leadership terms because the Seoul-Tokyo relationship will continue to ebb and flow. If an ultra-leftist South Korean president and an ultra-right wing Japanese leader are elected in their next cycles, or even if Trump or someone like him wins in the U.S., then any one of them could derail all the meaningful, hard work the three countries are putting in right now.
Jacob Stokes, Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
Today’s trilateral summit among the United States, Japan, and South Korea is a watershed moment for Asian security and the post-World War II international order. Threats from North Korea and China have created the conditions for Seoul and Tokyo to improve relations despite persistent historical disputes. Geopolitical challenges alone would not have been enough, though. ROK President Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida deserve praise for taking big political risks domestically to move this agenda forward.
President Biden and his team likewise deserve credit. They have deftly crafted a diplomatic context that will generate political benefits for Yoon and Kishida at home (few venues lack the diplomatic majesty and history of Camp David); prioritized the trilateral from the earliest days of the administration (notably, expanding U.S.-Japan-ROK cooperation was one of the 10 core action items in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy); and sustained their efforts over the course of many years and across administrations (recall the role of Biden and many of his senior officials in facilitating the 2015 Japan-ROK agreement on compensation for victims of wartime sexual exploitation and forced labor).
Going forward, fleshing out the full range of cooperative mechanisms among the three countries will be critical. Further institutionalizing the trilateral relationship can help both in realizing the tangible benefits of working together, and by creating a buffer against future downturns in Japan-ROK relations. And while security cooperation should remain at the center of the trilateral partnership, deepening joint efforts in other areas—from technology to economics, energy, and governance—will also prove worthy investments.
Finally, responses from China, North Korea, and Russia have been typically vituperative regarding what they see as moves toward an “Asian NATO.” Condemnation from authoritarian states should encourage rather than dissuade additional trilateral U.S.-Japan-ROK cooperation. After all, the authoritarians’ strategies rely on driving wedges in the coalition of liberal democracies. At the same time, Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul should work together to craft a trilateral strategy for principled engagement with rival powers. Such diplomacy will need to be tightly coordinated and designed to support the maintenance of peace, stability, prosperity, and freedom in Northeast Asia and beyond. Geopolitics is polarizing the region into blocs. In this environment, allied actions to bolster deterrence should be paired with a joint diplomatic strategy to reinforce stability.
Joshua Fitt, Associate Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
At today’s Camp David summit, President Biden, Prime Minister Kishida, and President Yoon covered a swath of important issues to the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral relationship. They directed much of their attention to responding to the threat from their increasingly belligerent and capable neighbors (China and North Korea), but also included many notable announcements about new initiatives in diplomacy, technology, economics, and human rights. As the three leaders battle rampant skepticism about the longevity of this upswing in trilateral ties, they are keen to demonstrate that they are building a relationship that is proactive rather than reactive. Instead of meetings driven by international events and crises, the leaders and several cabinet-level officials of the three countries will now meet annually. This move is both a mark of commitment to the strong potential of the trilateral relationship and a recognition that it will take more than one summit to get there.
The foundation of cooperation among the three nations is their unprecedentedly high level of strategic alignment. But the degree to which this progress will be sustainable depends on these ideas being independent of the stewardship of any leader in particular, and instead viewed as an essential representation of the trilateral relationship’s shared values. The fact that all three countries are democracies means it is unavoidable that administrations and policies will change through elections, sometimes drastically. Getting to this point, even with current leadership in place, required overcoming significant political headwinds. The only avenue to avoiding regression is to build a new norm based on resilient systems and mechanisms and to prove its value to domestic audiences.
Hannah Kelley, Research Associate, Technology and National Security Program:
In bold declaration of a shared strategic vision for the Indo-Pacific region, today’s trilateral Joint Statement signals a new era of cooperation for Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States—seemingly out of reach just a few short years ago.
The Statement promises improved trilateral information sharing, commits to increased defense coordination, and restates the importance of “robust cooperation in the economic security and technology spheres.” Noting both the “grave threat(s) to peace and security on the Korean Peninsula” posed by the DPRK, as well as China’s “dangerous and aggressive behavior supporting unlawful maritime claims… in the South China Sea,” the Statement calls for aligned action against foreign information manipulation, economic coercion, and the misuse of surveillance technologies. It likewise notes the importance of “leveraging the unique capabilities” of each state and collaborating meaningfully on STEM research and development, as well as on supply chain resilience across a number of critical and emerging sectors. This includes developing early warning system pilots to chart and respond to potential supply chain disruptions and increasing cooperation on export controls to guard against the diversion and misuse of native technologies.
The fundamental role that tech cooperation plays in the trilateral relationship, and thus in the stability of the Indo-Pacific, cannot be overstated. Given the technological strengths of each state and their critical roles in the region, maintaining vision alignment within each line of effort will be crucial to capturing the momentum of this moment and fully realizing the potential of a prevailing trilateral relationship. I’m eager to see what lasting strides will be made, and particularly interested in what might be accomplished together in the field of biotechnology—an increasingly critical sector.
Sam Howell, Research Assistant, Technology and National Security Program:
On the technology front, the Camp David Summit with Japan and South Korea was a big win for the Biden administration. Japan and South Korea are two important players in the global technology landscape, each bringing unique capabilities and advantages to the table. Close cooperation with both countries is key to the successful implementation of President Biden’s technology agenda.
Despite their shared importance to global technology supply chains, the United States, Japan, and South Korea have struggled to achieve meaningful technology cooperation to date. Japan and South Korea were initially critical of the United States’ October 7 semiconductor export controls, for example, and hesitant to jump on board with their own technology regulations. While Japan eventually unveiled a regulatory framework to complement the United States’ policy, South Korea is still on the fence. Similarly, the United States and Japan have found avenues for cooperation on critical minerals, but South Korea has been relatively less eager to participate. Technology’s inclusion on the agenda at the Camp David Summit suggests that there is a newfound political appetite to confront differences between the three countries in the interest of advancing common interests.
The Joint Statement is a strong start towards greater U.S.-Japan-ROK technology alignment. The statement highlights a few technology areas of particular concern, including semiconductors, batteries, biotechnology, critical minerals, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing.
The three countries agreed to work together to bolster supply chain resilience, develop technology standards, boost scientific innovation, and increase access to the STEM talent required to maintain technological competitiveness. They also agreed to enhance cooperation on technology protection measures and research security. It will be interesting to see if this translates into a new round of coordinated export controls on specific technologies. It will also be interesting to see whether Japan and South Korea soon establish outbound investment screening tools to mirror those announced by the United States on August 9.
In short, the Joint Statement is promising, and the Camp David Summit could mark an important turning point in the U.S.-Japan-ROK relationship. Moving forward, President Biden, Prime Minister Kishida, and President Yoon should seek opportunities to institutionalize this progress and make it more difficult for future leaders to reverse course.
Rebecca Wittner, Research Consultant, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
The trilateral U.S.-Japan-ROK summit at Camp David marks the first time that President Biden has invited foreign leaders to convene at this location since he took office. It bears extreme significance in terms of advancing the countries’ shared interests in ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. The joint statement released today highlights the immense work that the Biden, Kishida, and Yoon administrations have put into this relationship. Historically, relations between Japan and South Korea have been strained by Japan’s imperialist past. However, given South Korea’s proximity to global security threats, President Yoon has demonstrated a groundbreaking willingness to work with Japan, as well as the United States to increase resiliency in the Indo-Pacific.
Threats emanating from China and North Korea challenge the stability of the world order. China’s constant engagement in provocative grey zone activity and North Korea’s rampant missile testing directly threatens both Japan and South Korea. While further removed, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also highlighted the need to bolster deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. As President Biden has prioritized upholding stability in the region, this historical summit was both necessary and timely.
The deliverables from this summit are similarly groundbreaking: annual trilateral meetings, crisis consultations, annual multi-domain exercises, further intelligence-sharing, securing critical supply chains, and much more. Both Beijing and Pyongyang are sure to be on high alert about the summit and statement—state-run newspapers in China have already been inaccurately likening the trilateral bloc to an Asian NATO—and it would be unsurprising if either state were to retaliate in some fashion. Nevertheless, the leaders of the United States, Japan, and Republic of Korea have committed to upholding their shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, as demonstrated by today’s joint statement.