S. Korea, US, Japan declare trilateral military alliance in all but name

Posted on : 2023-08-21 18:30 KST Modified on : 2023-08-21 18:30 KST
Camp David created a path for the countries to coordinate joint military responses, lending credence to the interpretation that South Korea will move toward forming an alliance with Japan
US President Joe Biden walks with his hand on the shoulder of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida walks beside them following their post-summit joint press conference at Camp David in Maryland on Aug. 18. (EPA/Yonhap)
US President Joe Biden walks with his hand on the shoulder of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida walks beside them following their post-summit joint press conference at Camp David in Maryland on Aug. 18. (EPA/Yonhap)

Experts say the recent Camp David summit attended by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, US President Joe Biden, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida set up the foundation for a military alliance among the three countries.

Following their meeting, the three leaders released three statements — “The Spirit of Camp David,” “Camp David Principles” and “Commitment to Consult” — conveying their determination to achieve military and economic cooperation by institutionalizing cooperation on multiple levels, making coordinated efforts to contain China, working together to defend against North Korea, supporting Ukraine and coordinating in regard to sanctions against Russia, and sharing information about supply chains.

Notably, the three countries pledged to cooperate at a level equivalent to a military alliance, such as by conducting regular joint military exercises in order to rein in China and Russia. As North Korea, China and Russia are expected to quickly join forces in turn, the strategic landscape in Northeast Asia is projected to fluctuate in significant ways.

Following Yoon’s return from the US on Sunday, the presidential office stated that the Camp David summit “changed the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region in eight hours.” During an interview with Yonhap News TV, national security advisor Cho Tae-yong remarked, “The South Korea-US-Japan summits will continue on as a key comprehensive consultative group in the Indo-Pacific region.”

“As this was the first time the three countries [of South Korea, the US, and Japan] officially clarified their mutual relations to the international community through documents, [the occasion] was very meaningful,” said Lee Do-woon, Yoon’s spokesperson, during a press briefing at the presidential office in the Yongsan District of Seoul. “From a security perspective, the trilateral summit equipped [the three countries] with the ability to respond to North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles, strengthening their security structure and security front.”

The US has been emphasizing its resolve to hold China in check in the spheres of security, economics, cutting-edge technology, and supply chains. The country expressly referenced China for the first time in one of the statements released following the summit, stating, “regarding the dangerous and aggressive behavior supporting unlawful maritime claims that we have witnessed by the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea, we strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the waters of the Indo-Pacific.”

The US added another layer to its net of encirclement against China, which had been composed of minilateral partnerships like AUKUS, a comprehensive security and economic partnership among the US, the UK, and Australia, as well as the Quad, a security consultative dialogue among the US, Japan, Australia, and India.

Meanwhile, South Korea highlighted the US and Japan’s pledge to regularize trilateral military exercises as a way to apply pressure on North Korea. The leaders of the three countries mentioned human rights issues and the issue of prisoners of war in North Korea in their joint statements, which is likely a reflection of the South Korean government’s changing North Korea policy.

In particular, the three countries’ leaders stated in their pledge to consult with one another that they “commit our governments to consult trilaterally with each other, in an expeditious manner, to coordinate our responses to regional challenges, provocations, and threats affecting our collective interests and security,” creating a path for them to coordinate joint military responses and lending credence to the interpretation that South Korea will move toward forming an alliance with Japan.

High-ranking US officials reportedly endeavored to include the word “duty” in the statement, opening up the possibility of South Korea being demanded to fulfill alliance-level defense obligations in the future. Victor Cha, the Korea chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the US, told the Washington Post that this “amounts to a new trilateral military alliance” even if Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo “won’t call it that.”

Nevertheless, when asked whether the three countries were in an “alliance relationship,” a key official at the presidential office responded that they were currently not, “as an alliance needs to be legally binding and signed through a treaty,” calling the use of expressions like “quasi-alliance” “excessive.”

Yoon is regarding the recent trilateral summit as a culmination of “values-based solidarity,” which he has repeatedly stressed since taking office. Having taken the lead in fomenting confrontation with North Korea, China, and Russia, the Yoon administration is now facing the formidable challenge of managing the risks entailing South Korea-China relations. Cheong Seong-chang, head of unification strategy studies at the Sejong Institute, commented, “North Korea will use the South Korea-US-Japan summit as an excuse to receive necessary military and economic support from Russia. [. . .] The chances of South Korea, the US, and Japan reaching a compromise with North Korea, China, and Russia have virtually disappeared.”

Next year’s summit is likely to take place in South Korea. Following his return from the US, Yoon expressed his hope to host the next trilateral summit on social media. An official from the presidential office told the Hankyoreh, “As [the three leaders] met in Hiroshima in May and in Washington, DC, this time, it’s only natural that [they] meet next year in South Korea.” The official added, “There wasn’t any opposition [to the idea] to speak of, and we are at the stage where we should begin discussing [when next year’s summit should take place].”

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter

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