Leaders of the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea are strengthening their alliance through an annual trilateral summit amid growing threats from North Korea and China, according to U.S. officials and analysts.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met virtually Tuesday with the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea, days before U.S. President Joe Biden is set to host Japanese Pime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeo at Camp David on August 18.
It will be the first time that foreign leaders have visited Camp David in Maryland since 2015, and the first standalone summit between three countries not held on the margins of multilateral meetings.
“What you can expect to see coming out of this summit is collaboration on a trilateral basis that is further institutionalized in a variety of ways, to include regular meetings at a variety of levels, senior levels in our governments,” Blinken told reporters during a press conference Tuesday.
The top U.S. diplomat added that “concrete initiatives” can be expected to address regional security such as “nuclear provocations,” economic security, humanitarian assistance, greater people-to-people exchanges as well as the use of emerging technologies amid geopolitical competition.
The three countries have vowed to share North Korea missile warning data "in real time" to improve each country’s ability to detect and assess the threats posed by incoming missiles.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel told media outlets in Tokyo last week that leaders of the three countries are expected to agree on holding annual summits to boost cooperation on regional security, including conducting annual joint exercises.
In July, the U.S. and South Korea kicked off the inaugural meeting of their Nuclear Consultative Group, or NCG. At that time, the U.S. also sent a nuclear-armed submarine on a visit to the South Korean port of Busan as a show of force.
The establishment of the NCG was first announced in April as part of the Washington Declaration, in which the leaders of the two countries laid out plans to strengthen U.S. extended deterrence against North Korea's nuclear threats.
“The Chinese are not happy with trilateral cooperation on missile defense” and “on intelligence sharing,” said Victor Cha who is senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS.
He said the consolidation of the alliance among the U.S., Japan, and South Korea “is happening now” because the external environment is very uncertain and unstable, citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which prompted countries to prioritize national security over other historical issues.
Cha told reporters on Monday that “China’s assertive behavior in the Taiwan Straits,” which includes economic coercion and military escalation, has added to the uncertainty; meanwhile, the U.S. and Japan would need South Korea’s ability to “deter credibly” against North Korea’s “opportunistic aggression” in the event of a Chinese invasion in Taiwan.
The trilateral summit is seen as the latest sign of improving ties between Tokyo and Seoul as the two governments took steps to put aside decades-long tensions over wartime history. Yoon visited Tokyo in March. Kishida reciprocated by visiting Seoul in May.
Yoon was invited to Hiroshima and attended the G-7 summit for the first time. Together, they visited a memorial to Korean victims of the atomic bombing.
The summit also comes as South Korea celebrates its National Liberation Day on August 15, when Korean citizens commemorate its independence from 35 years of Japan’s colonial rule.
What to expect?
China has slammed the upcoming Camp David summit as an attempt to create a “mini-NATO” in northeast Asia. North Korea also has accused the U.S. of “cooking up the Asian version of NATO” by strengthening military cooperation with Japan and South Korea.
But former U.S. officials said an expected trilateral statement among Washington, Tokyo and Seoul is unlikely to include NATO Article Five-type language, such as “a threat to one is a threat to all.”
“Even though it will fall far short of Article Five language,” specific new initiatives such as regular trilateral exercises and ballistic missile defense cooperation can be expected, said Christopher Johnstone, a former CIA official who is now a senior adviser at the Washington-based CSIS.
“The focus of this meeting” is to “look for ways to institutionalize the progress” and to make it harder for future leaders in any of these three countries to walk away from it, he noted.
State Department Deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said Tuesday there's no reason to view this summit as provocative or any effort to incite tensions.
“What this summit is about is getting countries together that share a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific” where people and goods can flow appropriately, where countries are free from coercion, Patel told VOA during a press briefing.