Following South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s efforts to reset relations with Japan earlier this year, the door to deeper trilateral cooperation between South Korea, Japan, and the United States has also opened. At the Camp David summit on August 18, the leaders of the three countries laid out a vision for deeper trilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Whether these efforts are the beginning of “a new era in partnership” among the three nations, as U.S. President Joe Biden remarked, or a temporary period of deeper cooperation will be the ultimate test for the progress made at Camp David.
Disputes over history have inhibited trilateral cooperation in the past. The main objective of the Camp David summit was to institutionalize cooperation among South Korea, Japan, and the United States in order for it to endure future periods of tension. The three leaders attempted to achieve this through three documents, designed to set the foundation for future cooperation – the Spirit of Camp David Joint Statement, the Camp David Principles, and the Commitment to Consult. Taken together, they lay out a vision for cooperation, describe the principles that will underpin that cooperation, and make a pledge to work together during crises in the region.
A Foundation for Sustained Trilateral Cooperation
Despite recent tensions in Japan-South Korea relations, there is a history of trilateral cooperation between the United States, South Korea, and Japan. The Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group, for example, was established in 1999 to deal with the threat from North Korea, but was later subsumed in the Six Party Talks. The Defense Trilateral Talks, which are held at the deputy defense minister level, began in 1994, lasted until 2002, and were later revived. The outcome of the Camp David summit was not just to widen and deepen the level of trilateral cooperation, but also to raise the level of official representation among the three governments.
In order to lay a foundation for continued cooperation, the three leaders committed in the Spirit of Camp David Joint Statement to hold not only annual meetings among themselves, but for their foreign ministers, defense ministers, and national security advisors to also meet annually. Commerce and industry ministers will begin to meet annually, as will the three finance ministers. The three leaders also agreed to a new Trilateral Indo-Pacific Dialogue to coordinate Indo-Pacific strategies.
Coupled with the establishment of annualized meetings is the Commitment to Consult. While not creating new security commitments, something the document is explicit about, the three countries have agreed to quickly consult with each other in crises, engage in enhanced information sharing, and coordinate their messaging and response to any regional challenges or provocations.
In addition to enhancing communications, the three countries have agreed to deepen their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in two areas. The first area is development finance cooperation. The United States, South Korea, and Japan intend to increase coordination on development assistance in the Indo-Pacific, specifically in areas related to carbon neutrality, supply chain resilience, and information and communications technology. The partners also plan to develop a new Trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation Framework on capacity building in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Island states to improve maritime law enforcement and domain awareness.
The three countries also plan to develop new mechanisms for cooperation on economic issues. In the area of supply chain resilience, they plan to launch a pilot early warning system to share information about disruptions, including from economic coercion, to inputs for critical products such as semiconductors and EV batteries. They have also committed to deeper cooperation in the prevention of technological theft, the development of technology standards, collaboration between national research laboratories, and an alignment of exports controls – an area that will require South Korea to develop new export control authorities.
These are just some examples of how the Biden, Yoon, and Kishida administrations are institutionalizing trilateral cooperation through increased meetings, policy alignment, and coordination mechanisms. The totality of this engagement may be the Spirit of Camp David’s strength. While nothing is irreversible, it would create a significant and damaging break in cooperation among the three partners should one side cease cooperation in areas agreed to at Camp David. Instead, during potential future periods of tension it is more likely that cooperation would be scaled back in certain areas, but not all. In essence, the baseline for cooperation during periods of tensions has been raised.
In a similar sense, institutionalization raises the costs to South Korea and Japan of engaging in bilaterally disruptive policies. In response to adverse Supreme Court rulings in South Korea on the issue of forced labor, for example, Japan imposed restrictions in 2019 on key chemicals for semiconductor production and removed South Korea from its list of trusted trade partners. These restrictions were removed this year as part of the rapprochement between South Korea and Japan. The hope going forward is that institutionalization of trilateral cooperation, while not eliminating the possibility of either country taking actions against the other, will disincentive them from doing so.
However, the ambitions for trilateral cooperation could also create a weakness. Increasing cooperation requires increased resources and adds complexity. It will be important for Biden, Yoon, and Kishida to demonstrate deliverable progress to ensure that future leaders and their publics see the benefit of maintaining trilateral cooperation.
What This Means for South Korea
The Camp David agreements constitute a significant step for South Korea. The Spirit of Camp David document commits the three countries to seek alignment in their objectives and their actions. In recent decades, South Korea has largely followed a strategy of looking to China as an economic partner and the United States as a security partner. The new agreements begin to move South Korea away from that model as it deepens cooperation with the United States and Japan on economic security, supply chain resilience, and technology. One could argue that this was happening with or without the Camp David agreements.
The shift has divided political opinion in South Korea. Progressive dailies more closely aligned with the political opposition in South Korea have raised concerns about the new agreements putting South Korea on the front lines of a new Cold War, heightening tensions with China and North Korea, and lessening Seoul’s room to maneuver. They also expressed concerns that South Korea’s national interests may become subordinate to the interests of the United States and Japan, especially in the areas of history and the territorial dispute over Dokdo (claimed by Japan as Takeshima).
In contrast, conservative dailies more aligned with Yoon have been more favorable toward the agreements, with one praising the accords as creating a grouping more influential than the Quad or AUKUS. However, one paper did raise the concern that deeper cooperation on regional security issues means that North Korea moves from being the primary security threat to one of many issues.
Future Prospects for Trilateral Cooperation
While much of the focus on trilateral cooperation is on the ability of South Korea and Japan to continue improving relations, an additional threat to deeper trilateral cooperation comes from uncertain politics in the United States.
In recent years, U.S. domestic politics has shifted on issues such as trade, a policy area that could have been utilized by the Biden administration to deepen trilateral ties. A trilateral free trade agreement (FTA) would have been a much more significant step than the Camp David agreements toward cementing relations among the three countries and would have made economic sense because it would bring together three high-tech economies that play significant roles in the supply chains for semiconductors, automobiles, steel, and clean tech. However, the idea of trilateral FTA is a non-starter due to current U.S. politics, in which any discussion of a new trade agreement would be dead on arrival within either political party.
The prospect of significant political change after the 2024 elections in the United States only highlights how Washington, rather than being a force for bringing the three countries together, could become the weak link in trilateral cooperation.
Long-term institutionalization of trilateral cooperation can only truly take root after it has survived political transitions in the United States, South Korea, and Japan. It was the transition to President Moon Jae-in in South Korea that unraveled the agreement on the comfort women between Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. It was Abe’s return to power that lead to a reconsideration in Japan of the Kono Statement, Japan’s original apology for its actions toward the comfort women. Similarly, in the United States the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump demonstrated how fragile international arrangements and commitments can be.
Biden, Yoon, and Kishida were right to take steps to deepen trilateral ties, but only their successors’ actions can demonstrate that the Camp David agreements mark an enduring new chapter in trilateral relations.