The Camp David trilateral summit is a concrete move for strategic rebalancing in the Indo-Pacific triggered by Chinese expansionism
The August 18 Camp David summit between US President Joe Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese PM Fumio Kishida will have far reaching strategic impact on the Indo-Pacific as it ushers a new era of trilateral partnership between US and its two defence allies in Northeast Asia. While both South Korea (ROK) and Japan have strong bilateral security ties with the US, the relations between Tokyo and Seoul have been uneasy due to lasting bitter memories among Koreans of the harsh Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula in 1910-1945.
The US is working assiduously to bring its two main Western Pacific allies closer since the historic “pivot” to the Indo-Pacific by President Barak Obama in 2011.Also, chancelleries across the world were forced to reexamine long-held beliefs due to the onslaught of the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, China’s expansionism and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Major are looking critically at emerging challenges and breaking out of the shackles of the past. In Asia, the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran and growing ties between the UAE and Israel are key examples.
Countries in the Indo-Pacific are also pushing back against the Chinese expansionism. New Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has been forthright in opposing China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea and reversed the appeasement policy of his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte. The US has also reaffirmed its security alliance with Manila.
The August 18 joint statement “Spirit of Camp David” seeks to “enhance strategic coordination between the US-Japan and US-ROK alliances” and “brings (their) trilateral security cooperation to new heights”. The three leaders are “resolute in (their) determination to uphold regional security, strengthen Indo-Pacific engagement and promote common prosperity”.
The joint statement criticises the “dangerous and aggressive behaviour supporting unlawful maritime claims by China in the South China Sea” and the three countries declared that they “strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in Indo-Pacific waters”. The joint statement thus widens the ambit of trilateral cooperation from Northeast Asia and the Korean peninsula to the entire Indo-Pacific, including the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait as the statement “reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”.
In a blunt warning to North Korea, the US “unequivocally reaffirm(ed) that its extended nuclear deterrence commitments to both Japan and and ROK are ironclad and backed by the full range of US capabilities”. It may be noted that analysts have questioned the long-term sustainability of this fundamental shift in the Korean attitude towards Japan as latent tensions over compensation to wartime Korean slave labour by Japanese companies and the so-called “comfort women” resurface violently from time to time. Despite close economic cooperation between Japan and South Korea after their 1965 “Treaty on Basic Relations”, there is a palpable hostility for each other among the people of the two countries. President Yoon boldly embarked on a new course of close understanding with Japan and had summit meetings with Prime Minister Kishida in Tokyo in March 2023 and in Seoul in May 2023.
There is vocal public concern among South Koreans about the release of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant in the Pacific Ocean, which the Yoon administration is finding difficult to assuage.
President Yoon Suk Yeol had won the March 2022 presidential election with a very narrow margin over his Democratic Party rival and has rather low approval ratings of around 30 per cent. In the ROK, the polity is almost evenly divided between rightists leaning towards the US, against any accommodation towards North Korea, and left-of-centre liberals more forgiving of North Korean transgressions and seeking a middle strategic space between the US, their main security partner, and China, the main economic partner. Through fair and open elections, political power keeps alternating between these two ideological opposites.
To prevent any backsliding by a future administration in any of the three countries, the Camp David joint statement commits the partners to “hold trilateral meetings between (our) leaders, foreign ministers, defence ministers and national security advisers at least annually”.
China’s reaction to this emerging trilateral alliance will be watched with considerable interest. In 2016, after the then-rightist Park Geun Hye administration permitted installation of THAAD anti-missile batteries in Korea, China had reacted angrily, curtailing tourism, threatening Korean businesses operating in China and harassing Korean giants like LOTTE group and Hyundai Motors.
After coming to power in 2017, the left-leaning President Moon Jae-in had adopted a policy of “3Nos” assuring China that Seoul will not add new THAAD missile batteries, not participate in a US missile defence network and not join any trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan. President Yoon appears to be on a course upending these assurances.
China’s ambassador in Seoul has adopted a “wolf warrior” stance and has publicly warned the Yoon administration against making the “wrong judgment” on US-China competition.
China will be worried about the continuing hawkish stance of Japanese foreign policy even after the demise of former PM Shinzo Abe. US bases in Japan and Korea may come into play in case of any misadventure by China across the Taiwan Straits.
The Camp David trilateral summit is a concrete move for strategic rebalancing in the Indo-Pacific triggered by Chinese expansionism. With other developments like the growing evolution of the Quad, bringing India closer to the US, Japan and Australia; the AUKUS between the US, UK and Australia; and assertion of sovereignty by the Philippines, the democracies of the region are sending a signal to China to reverse its policy of forcing unilateral changes on the ground around its periphery, and thus putting the peace, stability and prosperity of the region in peril.