President Biden will host the leaders from South Korea and Japan on Friday at Camp David, a profound signal of the seriousness the White House places on deepening ties with Seoul and Tokyo to shore up America’s security.
The three democratic countries share grave, mutual concerns about China’s pursuit of domination in the military, technology, economic and diplomatic arenas, and equally acute threats from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The trilateral summit marks the first time Biden has invited foreign leaders to the storied compound, a location strategically chosen to allow South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida a chance to demonstrate the strengthening of historically strained ties between Seoul and Tokyo.
Biden, Yoon and Kishida have met previously on the sidelines of other international gatherings — such as the G7 in Hiroshima in May and last year’s NATO summit in Madrid — but the meeting at Camp David marks the first official trilateral summit. The leaders are expected to announce a commitment to meet annually moving forward.
Here are four things to know about this historic summit:
South Korea and Japan showcase ‘courageous diplomacy’
Yoon and Kishida are credited with expending significant political capital to ease tensions between the two Pacific countries, with longtime grievances ranging from Tokyo’s human rights atrocities against Koreans during World War II, territorial disputes and more modern-day problems of bilateral economic and environmental issues.
A senior administration official, briefing reporters ahead of the summit, described Yoon and Kishida pursuing rapprochement as “courageous diplomacy” that is being carried out under serious domestic pressure and opposition.
“In each country, there is substantial questions and even opposition about some of the steps that have been taken,” the official said.
“It’s the rarest of things to observe, this kind of leadership from Prime Minister Kishida and President Yoon, and it needs to be acknowledged internationally because it is extraordinarily challenging and important, the steps that they have taken.”
Concrete commitments to counter China, North Korea and more
The three leaders are expected to announce a host of commitments and concrete measures to deepen security partnerships.
This includes the establishment of a “crisis hotline,” which the senior administration official described as a “state-of-the-art trilateral hotline” to be used in “moments of crisis and uncertainty.”
“All three leaders will take a pledge, what we would call a ‘duty to consult,’ in the event of a crisis or a set of circumstances that affects the security of any one of our countries,” the senior administration official said.
The details of the hotline will be formally laid out in a “commitment to consult” statement that a second administration official cautioned should not be interpreted as a threat to any other country in the region — hedging against backlash from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
“It is not a formal alliance commitment. It is not a collective defense commitment that is lifted from an early Cold War Security Treaty,” the official said.
“But what it very much is, is a commitment amongst our three countries that if there is a regional contingency or threat, we will immediately and swiftly consult with one another.”
The U.S., South Korea and Japan are reacting to the security threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, its testing of ballistic missiles, the official said.
Risks posed by China, and Beijing’s alignment with Russia while it has carried out a war of aggression against Ukraine, has further drawn Washington, Seoul and Tokyo together, the official said.
The three leaders are also expected to release a statement reaffirming commitments to ensuring “peace and stability” across the Taiwan Strait — key language warning Beijing against aggressive action in the waterway or against the island of Taiwan.
“I would suggest that what you’re seeing in Japan and South Korea, the United States is largely a response to security steps and measures that we believe are antithetical to our interests,” the official said.
Still, the three leaders are expected to be cautious in the language they use referring to the PRC, in particular, with the U.S., South Korea and Japan all holding important economic ties with China.
“All three countries are committed to an effective, practical diplomacy with China,” the official said.
“China is a huge trading partner, important player on the global stage. Each of these countries wants stable relations, and they are determined to work constructively towards that.”
Beijing lashes out
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Tuesday said Beijing stands in opposition to “relevant countries assembling exclusionary groupings” and described the trilateral as provocative and dangerous.
The pushback to the trilateral summit follows Chinese opposition to Taiwan’s vice president transiting through the U.S. on the way to official diplomatic engagements in Paraguay.
The “transit” provides rhetorical cover for William Lai, who is a candidate for the 2024 presidential elections, to engage with the U.S. even as China views such meetings as violating its core belief that Taipei should be subservient to Beijing.
Wang called Lai “a troublemaker through and through.”
China is also carrying out displays of solidarity with Russia and North Korea, with Beijing sending a representative to Pyongyang last month to stand alongside North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russia’s defense minister at an event marking the 70th anniversary of the armistice with South Korea.
Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the meeting in Pyongyang shows that those countries are reacting to deepening ties between the U.S., South Korea and Japan.
“That really, I think reflects that there is an interactive dynamic at this point, and that the trilateral convergence of interests is having effects on the broader environment,” he said during a panel discussion on Tuesday.
Domestic politics in the U.S. and abroad are a wild card
A key aspect of the trilateral summit, according to U.S. officials and experts, is the opportunity to normalize the working relationship among Washington, Seoul and Tokyo and insulate it against wildly changing politics in each respective country.
South Korea will hold legislative elections in 2024, which will be a major test if opposition political parties will gain more power against Yoon’s People’s Power Party.
“What this really is about is trying to institutionalize trilateral cooperation among the three governments … it hedges against the possibility of reversibility of the process and it puts into place a process the leaders hope will be durable,” Snyder said.
Still, Yoon and Kishida are enjoying relative popularity among the public for moving the two countries closer together.
“On the politics side, the polling looks pretty positive,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Studies with the Council on Foreign Relations. But she cautioned such polls don’t reflect the deep-seated feelings of the public’s opinion.
“This is intermittent polling so we shouldn’t jump to the conclusions that the public has really shifted, but there is a significant degree of responsiveness to President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida’s summitry that we can see on the polling data on both sides,” she added.
The U.S. is also a wild card. Former President Trump took an antagonistic approach to U.S. partners in the Pacific, threatening the pullout of American troops from South Korea and Japan unless those countries offered to pay more for the cost of hosting the U.S. forces.
Trump remains the frontrunner for the Republican presidential ticket despite the unprecedented four separate criminal indictments against him.
But Biden officials point to rare, bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for the relationship with South Korea and Japan as protective against changing politics in Washington.
On Thursday, the bipartisan House members focused on foreign policy and in the Indo-Pacific released a joint statement celebrating Yoon and Kishida’s visit and encouraging deeper ties.
“As the United States strengthens our already strong alliances with both Japan and South Korea, elevating our trilateral relationship is key to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific and a rules-based international order,” wrote the chairman of the committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas); ranking member Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.); and chairpeople of the subcommittee on the Indo-Pacific, chairwoman Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif), and ranking member Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.)
“We applaud both leaders for addressing historic differences to promote our shared values, enhance prosperity, and expand our economic and defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific to address shared challenges,” they wrote.