Camp David pact eases Japan-South Korea tensions

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The leaders of Japan and South Korea on Friday put decades of frequently acrimonious relations behind them, signing on to a trilateral pact with the US that will deepen military and intelligence co-operation between the three allies.

The agreement, formally reached at President Joe Biden’s retreat at Camp David outside Washington, sets up annual summits between US, Korean and Japanese foreign and defence officials; establishes joint military exercises; and creates new lines of communication to collaborate on threats posed by North Korea and China.

At a joint news conference, Biden said the countries had “made history” with their first trilateral summit and praised his counterparts for their “political courage” — a nod to the tensions between Tokyo and Seoul that have festered since Japan’s wartime aggression more than 80 years ago.

In addition to securing a long-sought thaw in relations between the US’s most important allies in east Asia, Biden also secured unity in deterring China, saying the leaders had “reaffirmed our shared commitment to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and addressing economic coercion”.

Yoon Suk Yeol, the South Korean president, said Camp David would be remembered as a historic place where the three countries had launched a “new chapter in our trilateral co-operation”.

Fumio Kishida, Japanese prime minister, was equally fulsome, noting the summit came at a time when the international order was “in crisis” and had been “shaken to its foundations” by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, North Korean missile launches, and tensions with China in the South China Sea.

The summit was the first gathering of foreign leaders at Camp David since 2015 and marked the end of a year-long effort by Biden aides to persuade Tokyo and Seoul to move beyond bitter tensions over Japan’s wartime behaviour and co-operate more closely in areas including military exercises, cyber security and intelligence sharing.

The US has bilateral defence treaties with Tokyo and Seoul, but has for decades struggled to convince its two allies to work more closely on regional security arrangements.

Yoon and Kishida agreed to the summit amid growing regional concern about China’s rapid military modernisation. Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, insisted the arrangement was not aimed at any single rival, but other US officials said the pact was unlikely to have been agree without heightened concerns about China and North Korea.

“China’s entire strategy is based on the premise that America and its number one and number two ally in the region can’t get together and get on the same page. That’s fundamentally going to be different,” Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan, said this week.

Patricia Kim, an Asia expert at the Brookings Institution, said the “striking progress” on bilateral and trilateral co-operation would not have been possible without the rising threat posed by Beijing and Pyongyang.

Kim said that “a heightened sense of insecurity” around China and North Korea was coupled with “renewed fears” of a disintegrating international security environment triggered by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. She also credited “incredible political will in all three capitals — particularly in Seoul”.

Michael Green, a former top White House Asia official who heads the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said the summit was Biden’s “most important power play in Asia” since the 2021 Aukus deal to help Australia obtain nuclear-powered submarines.

“From an historical perspective, it is arguably much bigger than Aukus because nobody doubted that the US, UK and Australia could work together,” Green said. “There was doubt . . . about whether Japan and Korea could align strategically.”

While the three countries have hailed the agreement as historic, one of the critical questions is whether their future leaders will continue in the same direction. Officials in Asia are particularly concerned about what will happen to US policy towards alliances if Donald Trump returns to the White House in 2025.

US officials have stressed that they are trying to create institutional structures that will be hard to unwind.

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