Trilateral Talks Intended to Enhance Coordination of Japan-U.S. and U.S.-ROK Alliances

The Yomiuri Shimbun
From right, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol walk toward their joint press conference at Camp David on the outskirts of Washington on Friday.

CAMP DAVID, Md. — The trilateral summit of the Japanese, U.S. and South Korean leaders on Friday was a “historic opportunity,” in the words of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, aimed at creating a framework for wide-ranging dialogue in times of emergency and peace and thereby achieving unwavering cooperation among the three nations.

With North Korea and China in mind, the three countries agreed to enhance the coordination between the Japan-U.S. and the U.S.-South Korea alliances, in order to strengthen their security cooperation.

With U.S. President Joe Biden in the center, the three leaders emerged from a mountain path and slowly walked toward an outdoor venue for their joint press conference. They had just concluded the first trilateral summit to be held independently among their countries, instead of on the sidelines of an international conference.

“If I seem like I’m happy, it’s because I am,” Biden said at the beginning of the press conference. “We meet in this historic place to make a historic moment.”

Biden was referring to Camp David, a retreat used by U.S. presidents for key diplomatic meetings for about 80 years. Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol were the first foreign dignitaries to be invited to Camp David since Biden took office.

The joint press conference lasted for an unusually long 54 minutes. When Biden invited Kishida to the White House in January, there was no joint press conference, illustrating a sharp contrast in the U.S. president’s enthusiasm.

Initially, the three leaders were expected to hold the trilateral talks in casual clothes. However, at the request of the U.S., they wore suits without ties.

“This probably shows the desire of the U.S. side to have robust discussions rather than informal ones,” a senior Japanese government official said.

Biden took pride in promoting U.S. ties with Japan and South Korea by making multiple visits to those countries when he was vice president under then U.S. President Barack Obama.

“My personal commitment to bringing these three nations together was real from the very beginning,” Biden said at the press conference.

By acting as a mediator to bring the Japanese and South Korean leaders closer, Biden also appears to be seeking a diplomatic achievement in the run-up to next year’s U.S. presidential election.

Deterrence against China

The Biden administration has been working to strengthen U.S.-Japan and U.S.-S. Korea ties under the banner of rebuilding alliances. Washington succeeded in establishing a multilayered cooperative relationship with Tokyo and Seoul through the three-way talks, not only in terms of security cooperation but also economic security and advanced technology.

A senior U.S. government official said the aim of the talks was to expand bilateral cooperation into the trilateral relationship. The United States apparently has deterrence against China in mind, which has been increasingly provocative regarding Taiwan.

In a joint statement, the three nations criticized China, referring clearly to “dangerous and aggressive behavior supporting unlawful maritime claims that we have recently witnessed by the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea.”

At the Friday press conference, Yoon said the three nations “will further strengthen our security cooperation to ensure peace in the region.”

Regarding the definition of “the region,” a senior official in the South Korean presidential office said there are attempts to unilaterally change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific. The official made the remarks apparently with regard to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, where China continues its aggressive maritime expansion.

Previous South Korean administrations were reluctant to engage in diplomacy outside the Korean Peninsula. Some observers believe Yoon’s comment is a stronger statement regarding the issue of China.

Differences in temperature

Some have said in the United States that while a contingency on the peninsula would be handled through the U.S.-S. Korea alliance, a contingency around the Taiwan Strait would have to be handled by the U.S. forces stationed in Japan with some deployment from those in South Korea.

Asked by the U.S. media in February what Seoul would do in the event of a Taiwan contingency, however, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said his country must maintain stability on the peninsula.

Since there are moves within the South Korean government to maintain distance from the Taiwan issue, Seoul’s perception of the matter remains different from that of Tokyo and Washington.

Yoon said during the three-way talks that the three countries must remain firmly united to ensure that the freedom of each country is not violated or undermined.

A Japanese government official said: “Weakened trilateral relations would only please North Korea and China. It is ever more important to draw South Korea closer to Japan and the Unites States.”