National Commentaries

“The Impact of the Camp David Trilateral”

A Perspective from Japan


A Historic Trilateral Step in a Journey of Many Kilometers?

Japan’s political leaders and strategic thinkers welcome significant advancement in trilateral strategic cooperation with the US and ROK, confirmed by a Statement of Principles and a Joint Statement adopted by President Joe Biden, President Yoon Suk-yeol, and Prime Minister Kishida Fumio at Camp David on August 18. For them, close strategic cooperation among the three countries is only natural considering the geopolitical challenges and national security threats in the region. In short, the US, Japan, and the Republic of Korea are natural allies, as the three countries share common national interests in promoting peace and prosperity in the region based on freedom, democracy, free enterprise, and rule of law. But the strained relationship between Japan and the ROK has long prevented the creation of a trusted and coordinated relationship among the three countries to face common challenges and threats. As both Japan and ROK have strong bilateral relations with the US, the key to moving forward with trilateral strategic cooperation is improvement in their bilateral relations, the weakest bilateral link among the three countries. Kishida had been an active participant in breathtaking diplomacy with Yoon supported by Biden aiming at fundamentally transforming the bilateral relationship to make true trilateral strategic cooperation possible.

Yoon deserves much credit for initiating efforts to normalize relations with Japan by taking a tremendous political risk. Despite strong domestic opposition and dysfunctional bilateral relations with Japan, he courageously pushed to mend the historical grievance with and emotional resentment of Japan rather than trying to appeal to populism of anti-Japanese feeling. He announced the establishment of a ROK foundation, which would compensate former forced Korean laborers in Japan during WWII or their relatives in lawsuits, as a means for allowing the Japanese companies to avoid directly paying compensation. Previously, the ROK Supreme Court had ruled that Japanese companies should compensate forced labor victims directly. Yoon demonstrated political wisdom and vision for the future in saying at a cabinet meeting “Japan has changed from a militaristic aggressor to a partner that shares universal values with us and cooperates with us on security, economy, science and technology, and global issues.” 

Kishida’s initial reaction to Yoon’s rapprochement was measured, most likely because of his personal experience as foreign minister in the Abe cabinet that saw a “final and irreversible” comfort women settlement flounder in the ROK due to domestic complications. However, Kishida eventually began positively responding to Yoon’s rapprochement to normalize bilateral relationship, as he realized the seriousness and thoughtfulness of Yoon’s rapprochement. Kishida visited Seoul in May 7 for the first visit in 12 years by a Japanese leader in return for Yoon’s visit to Tokyo, a rare occurrence for a ROK president, on March 16 and 17. He also invited Yoon to the G7 summit held between May 19 and 21 in Hiroshima as a guest and personally escorted him to the monument in memory of the Korean victims of the atomic bomb at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Kishida expressed strategic empathy and personal commitment to the Korean leader.

It is not surprising that Japan’s political leaders and strategic thinkers value improvement in the bilateral relationship with the ROK based on realism in international politics and security. However, the public, which has historically been skeptical about improving bilateral relations, seems to also welcome and support fundamental improvement in the relationship. For example, NHK polls taken between May 12 and 15 revealed 53% of the respondents expected bilateral relations to improve, while only 32% did not expect that.  Furthermore, US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel stressed the importance of Japan’s positive general public reaction towards the ROK at a recent think tank event in Washington, saying that “something may not be seen or heard here [Washington]” is that the reaction in Japan on Kishida’s efforts to improve relations with ROK is “incredibly favorable.” Of course, Yoon’s savvy in managing possibly contentious issues between Japan and ROK, such as the release of treated radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plants, which is a contrast to China’s negative reaction, really helps Japanese sentiment.

It should be noted that Biden played an active role as vice president in the Obama administration to promote cooperation between Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and President Park Geun-hye. For a short period of time, Japan and the ROK had robust cooperation in information sharing and defense cooperation until the election of presidents Moon Jae-in in the ROK and Donald Trump in the US. This time, Biden stepped forward more aggressively than in the past to demonstrate the US permanent and concrete engagement with Japan and ROK. He earnestly supported rapprochement through discreet dialogue with Japan and ROK, both separately and jointly, to create a new strategic framework of discourse to make sustainable trilateral cooperation possible.  Emanuel summarized Biden’s efforts that “both leaders saw the opportunities for the twenty first century rather than problems and challenges of the twentieth century and seized it. They extended themselves and we gave them the trust and confidence to extend themselves.”

New Era of Trilateral Partnership

Japan’s positive attitude to improved bilateral relations with the ROK and forward-leaning approach to robust strategic cooperation among the three nations reflect a fundamental shift in how Japan sees the dramatically changing security environment surrounding Japan. Hope of establishing a world order based on democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and rule of law, which was widely shared in the West following the end of the Cold War, has been completely dashed. The Soviet Union vanished but a new set of dangerous threats, which are capable of inflicting tremendous damage with new ambitions, devastating weapons, and disruptive technology, has emerged.

China is now a dominant power to be reckoned with not only in Asia but around the world in terms of economic, military, diplomatic, and cultural influence. China has increasingly become more confident, more assertive, and even coercive in imposing its will over other countries against their will. China presents a tremendous threat to Taiwan and makes unwarranted territorial claims against most of its neighboring nations. North Korea has been steadily increasing its capability to launch long-range nuclear missiles that can cause tremendous damage. It has been seriously threatening neighboring nations by launching a series of missiles in succession to further improve its capability. Russia has reverted to its “evil empire” roots by threatening its neighbors and suppressing domestic opposition. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is totally outside the widely accepted international norm. Russia has been playing a role of junior partner of China to advance its national interest against democratic countries in Asia. These three countries are each led by a single mercurial autocratic leader, who consolidates power to himself and thus is highly unpredictable. Such security elements compel Japan to work with the US and ROK in a much more coordinated way.

Japan understands and appreciates the deep symbolism attached to holding the trilateral summit at Camp David, where meetings of historic importance have often convened, such as the one between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in September 1978 to establish a framework for a peace treaty between the two countries in March 1979. The August 2023 summit was the first stand-alone trilateral meeting among the leaders, who had previously met on the sidelines of multilateral summits and gatherings. Additionally, Kishida and Yoon became the first foreign leaders invited to Camp David since Biden took office in January 2021. Kishida highlighted the momentous occasion at Camp David by saying “the fact that we, the three leaders, have got together in this way, I believe means that we are indeed making a new history as of today. The international community is at a turning point in history.”

The historic summit at Camp David was not only about symbolism but also substance.  It produced a Statement of Principles and a Joint Statement that aim to institutionalize trilateral strategic ties ensuring regular opportunities for consulting, coordination, and confidence-building at multiple levels among the three countries. The three leaders agreed to hold regular meetings with the top leaders, foreign ministers, defense ministers, finance ministers, commerce and industry ministers, national security advisors and other high-level government officials of the three countries. Institutionalization of trilateral strategic ties can have sustaining power, especially when established at the highest level of the three countries at historic Camp David.

The most significant realm of strategic cooperation that the three leaders pushed forward was security. The three nations agreed to elevate defense collaboration to unprecedented levels by announcing a Commitment to Consult, in which the leaders acknowledged that their security is deeply intertwined for the first time. The three nations also agreed to introduce ambitious new initiatives such as annual multi-domain trilateral military exercises, as part of an expanded multi-year trilateral exercise plan. The three leaders additionally agreed to expedite data and information sharing on North Korea’s missile launches and cyber-attacks in real time. Finally, the US unequivocally reaffirmed its extended deterrence commitment to both Japan and the ROK. 

The trilateral summit at Camp David also covered a wide range of areas in addition to security for trilateral strategic cooperation. The leaders adapted a holistic approach to strengthening trilateral ties by significantly broadening areas of cooperation to include economic security, development assistance, supply chain management, critical technologies, technological innovation, developing country capacity building, humanitarian aid, maritime security, economic participation, countering disinformation, and so on. They also widened the regional scope of trilateral strategic cooperation from Northeast Asia to the Indo-Pacific and beyond, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Pacific Island nations. Since the three countries jointly deal with a wide range of strategic issues well beyond Northeast Asia, the leadership credentials for both Japan and ROK have been greatly raised. 

Finally, trilateral strategic cooperation provides new opportunities for energy cooperation in nuclear and natural gas, as both Japan and ROK seek to reduce energy dependence on Russia. Furthermore, trilateral strategic cooperation includes a more united approach to sensitive and complicated issues, such as human rights in North Korea and the fate of Japanese abductees, unification of the Korean Peninsula, and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, according to the “Camp David Principles.” 

Embracing the Potential of Trilateral Cooperation

Many government officials of the US, Japan and ROK worked hard to plan and navigate the complex process of negotiations and coordination for their leaders to work together in this historic way. Yoon courageously took political risks to improve Korea’s relationship with Japan, and Kishida fully reciprocated Yoon’s efforts based on personal trust built between the two leaders during the process. The two leaders worked in concert with support extended by Biden to try to transform the weakest link troubled by history and emotion into a stronger bond with a strategic vision for the future. The agreement encompasses an ambitious set of initiatives across many strategic spheres, which are crucial for peace, stability, and prosperity for not only the three countries but also for the Indo-Pacific region. By fully embracing potential for the trilateral cooperation, the leaders elevated the links among the three countries to a higher plane and bolstered the leadership credentials of trilateral relations on the global scene.   

However, the announcement of trilateral cooperation by the three leaders alone does not ensure effectiveness and longevity of such cooperation in the future. Nothing will guarantee insulating this grand partnership from retrogression, as the trilateral relationship embarks on the difficult road of implementation. First, there are risks of political leadership changes in the three countries. Biden will face a presidential election next November. Kishida will need to extend his LDP leadership beyond the party president election next September. Yoon has to navigate difficult domestic political terrain to maintain his leadership position. It is safe to say all three may not be around as a leader for a sustained period of time, and it is not clear whether possible successors share the same vision and enthusiasm about the trilateral strategic cooperation.

Second, all three countries have deep economic relationships with China. While the three leaders said the trilateral cooperation is not about China, Beijing is certainly not happy about the emergence of strong trilateral cooperation and may introduce punitive economic counter actions. China’s ban on seafood imports from Japan ostensibly for safety concerns, for example, could be seen in part as a ploy to divide the ROK and Japan, given Korean sensitivity to this issue. Japan and the ROK will feel immediate and concrete negative effects of such actions, as their economies are more deeply connected with China, including their respective expatriates in China, and they are more vulnerable due to their geographical proximity not only to China, but also to North Korea and Russia.

Third, the bilateral relationship between Japan and ROK remains the weakest link. It has experienced many instances of hope for improvement that were dashed with terrible consequences. There is always risk of historical sensitivity and emotion overtaking geopolitical realism and practicality. It is worth noting that there is marked difference in the public reactions in Japan and Korea. In recent polls, the Japanese public expressed high approval for the trilateral cooperation (60% approval and 27% disapproval in Yomiuri and 55% approval and 28% disapproval in Nikkei), whereas, according to Ellen Kim at CSIS, the trilateral summit received “a mixed response in ROK.” It is important to point out that the trilateral cooperation was led by Kishida and Yoon without robust national policy debates and steadfast consensus among the general public.

Lastly, while the three leaders agree to expand and deepen security ties, there are many complicated and possibly very sticky challenges in terms of military coordination. Having a joint military exercise among three independent military forces is one thing, and creating closely coordinated and complementary military forces is another. One example is the difference in command structure in the ROK and Japan. The US has a four-star general in the ROK, who represents the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), the United Nations Command (UNC), the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) and the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a remnant of the Korean War. In contrast, the US has a three-star general in Japan, who represents the U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) and reports to a four-star admiral, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. There is a lot of work to be done in terms of command and control without causing friction and confusion.

The trilateral strategic cooperation will no doubt face challenges emerging from the political situations in the respective countries, as well as external factors coming from China, North Korea, and Russia. Trilateral cooperation requires and deserves the best possible attention and support from like-minded realistic people with domestic and global point of views to fully embrace the potential of the three countries. Kurt Campbel, deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for the Indo-Pacific at the National Security Council said it best, “this is not the culmination of all these efforts but a continuation of the process.” He added, “we are confident that we will sustain and build on what we believe will be a defining trilateral relationship for the twenty-first century.”

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