SEOUL, South Korea — Don’t look for a “NEATO” — a NATO-like military alliance for Northeast Asia — to emerge from the much-touted Camp David summit President Biden is holding Friday with the leaders of South Korea and Japan, but the three leaders will still face pressure to formalize the foundations for trilateral strategic and economic cooperation.
Japanese Premier Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will be Mr. Biden‘s guests at the breakthrough gathering. The three have met before on the sidelines of other diplomatic gatherings, but Friday’s summit is being touted as their first-ever dedicated trilateral for the three allies.
“I think what you can expect to see coming out of this summit is a collaboration on a trilateral basis that is further institutionalized in a variety of ways, to include regular meetings at … senior levels in our governments,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week. “Japan and South Korea are core allies — not just in the region, but around the world.”
It’s also a summit that would have seemed extremely unlikely just a few years ago: While both Japan and South Korea have solid bilateral alliances with Washington, the fraught relations between the two have been a persistent complication for Washington as it tries to present a united front in the region against adversaries such as North Korea and China.
Friday’s summit takes advantage of the unusual amity prevailing between the Kishida and Yoon administrations, which have — for now — overcome their customary historic distrust dating back to Japan‘s colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula in the decades before World War II.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday that the summit will take “relationships with each other and amongst each other to a whole new level,” though whether the alliance will take a more formal long-term shape is uncertain.
While the birth of a “NEATO” looks ambitious for a first trilateral, the meeting has clearly raised hackles in Beijing and Pyongyang.
China‘s state-controlled Global Times news website accused the three leaders of colluding to create a “mini-NATO” that will be “destructive to regional security.” Russia’s Tass news agency reported that North Korean Defense Minister Kang Sun-nam told a major security conference in Moscow this week that the Biden administration was driving the region to the verge of nuclear war.
The sharp criticisms point to a growing security divide in the Indo-Pacific region, pitting authoritarian, trans-continental powers China, Russia and their partners against democratic, peripheral powers in U.S.-allied Western Europe and Northeast Asia.
In Northeast Asia, China and Russia are increasingly upgrading defense cooperation, notably in air and naval domains. North Korea’s nuclear missile force boasts the range to strike anywhere between Seoul and Washington.
The need for speed
Tactically, there is much for the three Camp David leaders to discuss, from joint drills to nuclear-arms sharing systems. Politically, there are pressing reasons to strike some deals, suggested Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council point man on East Asia.
The summit aims “to lock in trilateral engagement both now and in the future,” he told the Brookings Institute on Wednesday, adding, “not just the near future, but the far future.”
All three leaders face that possibility that future administrations could roll back trilateral cooperation in the absence of concrete commitments.
Japan looks stable. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been in power since 2012, has consistently pursued a stronger defense and sharper security profile launched by late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and embraced today by Mr. Kishida.
Japanese voters have accepted, largely without protest, a creeping strategy of re-arming and upgrading defense doctrines.
“There are questions about Kishida’s popularity, so I am not so sure he would be willing to take political risks,” said James Kim, an expert on public opinion in Korea and Japan, who lectures at Columbia University. “But the LDP is not likely to be overturned.”
The domestic politics in South Korea are trickier. The conservative Mr. Yoon has surprised many with his bold and radical policy of upgrading relations with Tokyo, in the face of still-powerful anti-Japanese sentiment at home. The most pro-Japanese administration to hold power in Seoul since democratization in 1987, Mr. Yoon follows perhaps the most anti-Japanese administration, that of Prime Minister Moon Jae-in, who stepped down last year
While protests so far have been muted, Mr. Yoon is seeking to lock in his pro-Japanese policies before his single term ends in 2027. South Korean political vengeance sees former presidents and officials jailed by successor administrations, and Mr. Yoon could see his parliamentary support slashed in next April’s general election.
Noting that domestic reforms are being stalled in the opposition-controlled assembly Mr. Kim warned. “He needs to succeed in the election for him not to become a lame duck for the rest of this term.”
Mr. Biden, too, faces uncertainties. The Trump administration shook Asian allies by attempting to questionng the value and the expense of U.S. military commitments in the region. While the Biden administration has embraced alliance-building, Mr. Trump could recapture the White House in 2024 and reverse many of the current administration’s priorities.
“If that does happen it would be catastrophic for the world order and international relations,” warned Daniel Pinkston, an international relations professor at Troy University. “Japan, Korea and the U.S. have strong incentives to cooperate in security because of the dynamics of the threat environment.”
A full menu
Given the opportunities and constraints, analysts say it will be intriguing to see what the three leaders can agree to Friday.
“In terms of the complexity and history of NATO, you cannot transfer that template to the Indo-Pacific,” said Alex Neill, a security expert with Pacific Forum, adding that he would expect Australia to be party to any such regional grouping.
Even so, the smorgasbord of issues that could arise at Camp David is potentially vast, and will require detailed follow-up by working groups.
It is widely expected that Mr. Biden and his guests will agree to a regular schedule of trilateral military exercises, as well as increased sharing of missile intelligence and data.
Mr. Yoon has said he is willing to invite Japan into Seoul‘s recently negotiated extended deterrence system with the U.S. Mr. Campbell said that a new hotline for the three countries will be initiated.
Also on the agenda will be support for Ukraine – neither Japan nor South Korea has so far agreed to send lethal military aid to Kyiv – and on coordinating strategy in the battle with China for influence in Pacific Island territories.
Japan and especially South Korea have historically been hesitant to commit to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a Chinese attack, but the flashpoint island, too, is expected to be raised.
Likewise, the three are expected to discuss sensitive strategic technologies, such as artificial intelligence and semiconductors. South Korea is the globe’s largest manufacturer of memory chips, while Japan is a leading supplier of components and manufacturing systems.
Both have China as their leading trade partner, a complicating factor in U.S. policy. Ironically, Beijing‘s lengthening regional shadow is energizing Seoul and Tokyo’s surprising rapprochement. Just five years ago, the two capitals were battling over issues such as trade, historical grievances and intelligence-sharing.
“It is remarkable these discussions are taking place as, as recently as 2018, a Korean destroyer illuminated a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft with its target radar,” said Mr. Neill. “There has clearly been fence-mending, and the unifying factor is the regional security environment.”