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The Peninsula

The Future of the Indo-Pacific as Envisioned at Camp David: A Korean Perspective

Published September 6, 2023
Category: South Korea

On August 18th, an unprecedented summit unfolded at Camp David where the leaders of the Republic of Korea (ROK), the United States, and Japan convened. The symbolic importance of the first ever stand-alone meeting and the historic location made a profound impact. The substantive nature of the summit also heralds the commencement of a “new era of trilateral partnership.” Now, however, it is imperative to meticulously scrutinize how we got here, the contents and outcomes elucidated within a joint statement dubbed “The Spirit of Camp David,” along with separate “Camp David Principles” and “Commitment to Consult,” and the tasks that lie ahead.

A New Trajectory of Yoon Suk Yeol’s Government

Since the inauguration of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration, a discernible enhancement in Korea-Japan relations has materialized, thereby precipitating a commensurate momentum in security cooperation among South Korea, the United States, and Japan. The Yoon administration embarked on a proactive quest to engender pragmatic resolutions to the vexing issue of Korean victims of forced labor—a paramount concern within the Korea-Japan context. This endeavor was encapsulated through a Korea-Japan summit convened on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Cambodia on November 2022. Remarkably, regular diplomacy was reinstated in March 2023 after a hiatus of 12 years, ushering in the resurgence of economic security dialogues, strategic dialogues at the vice-ministerial level, the normalization of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), alongside reenergized security cooperation among South Korea, Japan, and the United States.

The G7 summit held in Hiroshima in May 2023 bore testament to the commitment of the three countries to multifaceted cooperation. Subsequent deliberations revolved around elevating the contours of collaboration to an unprecedented level, encompassing cooperation vis-à-vis North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, economic security imperatives, and respective Indo-Pacific strategies.

Concomitantly, defense authorities exhibited alacrity in their responses. In April 2023, the three countries convened a vice-ministerial security dialogue, the Defense Trilateral Talks (DTT), to delineate specific focal points for security collaboration. Military exercises involving three countries have manifested. Notably, the Pacific Dragon, a multilateral exercise in August 2022, incorporated missile detection and warning drills. Missile defense exercises were held in October 2022, February, April, and July 2023, as were anti-submarine drills in September 2022 and April 2023. The accord between the defense ministers of these countries in June 2023 to establish an annual plan for exercises bore testimony to their determination to institute pragmatic collaborative frameworks.

The initiatives undertaken by the Yoon administration, as underscored at the Camp David press briefing, epitomize resolute strides toward forward-looking diplomacy in the face of domestic political difficulties. The momentum of these efforts was invigorated through the robust expectations and support by the Biden administration for trilateral cooperation, reciprocated by Kishida’s cabinet—a manifestation of the audacious diplomacy underpinning the Yoon government.

Significance of the Camp David Summit

Preceding the summit, there was a concerted emphasis by the respective administrations to build diplomatic momentum. A senior U.S. official articulated that the summit focused on “institutionalizing, deepening and thickening the habits of cooperation.” And during a press briefing subsequent to the summit, the three leaders expressed satisfaction with the outcomes. The media has been filled with a myriad of appraisals and analyses, alongside numerous seminars convened to evaluate the summit within each nation. Korean defense scholars, though, offer a distinct perspective on the meaning and accomplishments of this summit, which can be broken down in the following areas:

  • Regional Scope of Collaborative Frameworks: By manifesting shared aspirations for defending peace and stability as Indo-Pacific nations, the summit codified each country’s specific regional purview and responsibilities dedicated to fostering the prosperity, connectivity, resilience, stability, and security in the Indo-Pacific region. The United States (February 2022), South Korea (December 2022), and Japan (March 2023) each articulated alignment with the regional ambit and objectives encapsulated within their respective “Indo-Pacific Strategies.” Notably, the commitment to regularly convene an “Indo-Pacific Dialogue” aims to unveil spheres of synergistic engagement, thereby facilitating cooperative orchestration.
  • Collective Response to Imminent and Protracted Threats: The summit also underscored the resolute commitment of the three nations to expeditiously consult on matters imperiling regional security and shared interests, encompassing topics such as: cybersecurity, financial order, maritime security, North Korean denuclearization, data-sharing mechanisms, human rights advocacy vis-à-vis North Korea, peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula, Ukrainian predicaments, and the Taiwan and the South China Sea issues. The reinforcement of strategic and operational readiness to counteract North Korean threats is particularly pertinent from the South Korean perspective.
  • Holistic and Multilayered Cooperation: Beyond conventional military security, the three leaders outlined comprehensive future cooperation in a diverse array of domains. This entailed bolstering of supply chains, financial collaboration, technology security, joint research and development initiatives, climate change mitigation, and non-proliferation endeavors. Trilateral cooperation is anticipated to advance through interaction with existing regional multilateral security frameworks such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and the Australia, United Kingdom, and United States Security Partnership (AUKUS). This anticipation is underscored by the prospects of fostering vitality within QUAD, which remains inhibited by India’s distinct strategic trajectory, and invigorating AUKUS, which has hitherto been confined to the domains of information sharing and nuclear-powered submarine collaboration.
  • High-Level Consultative Mechanisms: The summit endeavored to strengthen communication and collaboration among high-ranking officials by instituting annualized forums encompassing a leaders’ summit, as well as foreign ministers, defense ministers, national security advisors, and commerce and industry ministers meeting across the three governments. Regularizing such meetings endeavors to instill stability and endurance in collaborative consultation, thereby institutionalizing multilayered cooperation. The regular, high-level interactions hold profound implications, as they engender a platform for delineating a cooperative agenda across pertinent ministries, steering tangible collaborative manifestations.
  • Expanded Horizons: While the trilateral partnership is critical in the Indo-Pacific, its boundaries extend beyond these three nations to encompass ASEAN partner countries and the Pacific Island countries. This underscores the inclusivity of the tripartite collaboration and the prospect of extending cooperative frameworks to a broad spectrum of regional actors. The “Camp David Principle,” centered around adherence to a rule-based order, protection of sovereignty, and “opposing any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion,” can serve as an operational tenet not just for these three countries but also for the global community at large.

While the three countries concur in their commitment to democratic norms, a liberal order, and shared values, nuanced distinctions persist in threat perceptions and the configuration and priorities of national interests. In this context, this summit marked the inception of a trilateral collaboration, characterized by the resolution to overcome divergent perceptions and align towards a future-oriented cooperative trajectory. The forthcoming trajectory of multidimensional cooperation hinges upon a deliberative assessment of the domains and modalities of collaboration, stemming from an acknowledgment of regional challenges, provocations, and threats that can only be addressed through concerted cooperation.

The Next Steps to Strengthen Trilateral Cooperation

The three leaders have established a new, unprecedented baseline for future trilateral relations, which is premised upon shared (or at least increasingly aligned) threat perceptions, new institutional frameworks, and common values. Furthermore, the trilateral framework is underpinned for both Seoul and Tokyo by their common alliances with Washington. Considering this distinctive context, elucidation of pivotal measures for strengthening this triangular cooperation is in order:

  • Vertices of the Triangle: Cooperation among the three countries is possible given their capabilities, and if grounded in the principle of mutual exchange and in a manner that recognizes their unique perspectives. The United States, as a preeminent global power, harbors concerns about the ascension of an authoritarian bloc, Japan is wedded to postwar pacifism, and South Korea confronts North Korea’s nuclear armament and Chinese coercion. Each country possesses substantial strengths but cannot go it alone. President Biden’s pronouncement that “Korea and Japan are capable and indispensable allies of the United States,” emphasizes their mutual indispensability. Consequently, nurturing and leveraging individual national competencies assumes paramount importance—whereby different national interests coalesce into harmonized outcomes.
  • Sides of the Triangle: Equilibrium within the triangle demands equidistant connectivity between the vertices. The linkage between Korea and Japan historically remains a nascent one within the broader connectivity comprising Korea-U.S. and Japan-U.S. bonds. After the Second World War and the Korean War, these two alliances have served, respectively, as a linchpin and cornerstone for regional stability and prosperity. The transitory dash-line connecting Korea and Japan necessitates substantial elongation. There are many problems to be solved including the Fukushima nuclear wastewater disposal, historical disputes, and export regulations, along with disparities in viewpoints concerning North Korea and China.
  • Straightening and Fortifying: The summit’s emphasis on institutionalizing collaboration underscores an effort to imbue solidarity with sustainability by fortifying the interconnecting lines of the triangle. While the architecture for institutionalization has been provisionally established through this summit, its full realization requires time and effort. As institutionalization is an evolving process, the initial vulnerabilities must be surmounted, particularly given North Korea and China may seek to test the limits and weaknesses of the nascent trilateral cooperation. As President Biden aptly stated, “success brings success,” meaning institutionalization unfurls as the three countries proactively and resolutely respond during periods of inevitable crisis, thereby ingraining the cooperative ethos.
  • And other Triangles: Trilateral engagement goes beyond the topline commitments of the three leaders. Pledges between governments must be accompanied by practical implementations facilitated through defense and military entities and complemented by parliamentary and public endorsement. The impending U.S. presidential election and domestic challenges faced by South Korea and Japan underscore the importance of bolstering consensus within domestic constituencies. Within the military echelon, interoperability transcending missile warning drills and anti-submarine warfare becomes pivotal.

Furthermore, the North Korea-China-Russia triangle warrants consideration, wherein cooperative architectures begin with a lucid apprehension of threats. Last month, during North Korea’s Victory Day parade, senior defense officials from China and Russia attended, with Russian Defense Minister Shoigu notably engaging in discussions encompassing topics such as joint military exercises between North Korea and Russia and the transfer of Russian nuclear and missile technologies. Enhancing the structure of the security frameworks among the trilateral partnership is indeed important. However, it is equally essential to exercise a strategic balance, avoiding unnecessary provocation of counterparts.

While concerns persist within Korea about the substantive yield vis-à-vis the United States and Japan, it is crucial to underscore that diplomacy within the ambit of allies and partners differs markedly from negotiations with adversarial entities designed to forestall immediate crises. Furthermore, such diplomacy diverges from trade negotiations that prioritize the quantifiable exchange of goods and services. Shared values and orientations serve to underscore alignment, with a mutual expectation of long-term national interest advancement through cooperative synergies, rather than expedient quid pro quo. The “Spirit of Camp David” distinctly pledged that the three countries would make the Indo-Pacific “thriving, connected, resilient, stable, and secure.”

Institutionalizing the vision pronounced by the three leaders requires navigating both international and domestic critique and skepticism at each juncture. Primarily, an enduring belief of this collaboration must resonate within the parties themselves. Consequently, the next steps will epitomize the spirit and principles encapsulated at Camp David through concrete action and will set the course for successful manifestation.

Hanbyeol Sohn is an associate professor in the Department of Military Strategy at the Korea National Defense University (KNDU) and Director, Center for Military Strategy in the Research Institute for National Security Affairs (RINSA). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from U.S. Pacific Fleet’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kevin A. Flinn.

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