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The first-ever trilateral summit between Japan-South Korea-U.S. – Heather Cox Richarson (Aug. 18, 2023)

South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, President Joe Biden and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, meet Friday, August 18, at Camp David, the presidential retreat, near Thurmont, Maryland. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

By Heather Cox Richarson

In a historic summit Friday at Camp David, President Biden and his counterparts from South Korea and Japan announced they will strengthen military cooperation and turn this first-ever trilateral summit into an annual tradition.

Why it matters: It was Biden’s first foreign leader summit at Camp David, and marks a significant step in the rapprochement between Tokyo and Seoul — two U.S. allies whose historically fraught relations have thawed in recent months amid China’s increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and ongoing nuclear threats from North Korea.

Driving the news: During the summit, Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida formalized a series of new commitments on diplomatic, economic and military cooperation.

  • The military agreements include a multiyear military exercise plan, deeper coordination on ballistic missile defense, and a new crisis-communication hotline.

What they’re saying: In a joint press conference, Biden stressed that “our world stands at an inflection point,” in which it’s particularly important to find “new ways to work together, to stand together.”

  • Biden praised the “political courage” of his counterparts for taking the steps announced Friday. Yoon in particular has faced strong domestic backlash for prioritizing reconciliation with Japan, due to historical Japanese abuses dating back to the colonial era.
  • Asked whether the U.S. relationships with South Korea and Japan could break down if Donald Trump is elected in 2024, Biden said Trump’s “America First” policies had weakened America, but he believes the “institutional changes” announced Friday will only strengthen over time.
  • In a joint statement, released prior to the press conference, the three leaders said theystrongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the waters of the Indo-Pacific.” They also urged “stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

The other side: The summit took place over Beijing’s objections.

  • “The international community has its own judgment as to who is creating contradictions and increasing tensions,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters on Friday.
  • “Attempts to form various exclusive groups and cliques and to bring bloc confrontation into the Asia-Pacific region are unpopular and will definitely spark vigilance and opposition in the countries of the region,” Wang said.
  • Biden said during the press conference that while the summit “was not about China,” the leaders had discussed their shared concerns about Beijing’s economic coercion and actions in the region.

Zoom in: At the summit, the leaders agreed to establish a trilateral hotline for times of regional crisis.

  • The White House said this was aimed mainly at North Korean provocations and pushed back on the notion that it’s a signal to China.
  • North Korea’s unprecedented surge in missile testing has also helped push America’s two closest allies in Asia closer together.
  • “I would just underscore that at this summit today, this partnership is not against anyone. It is for something. It is for a vision of the Indo-Pacific that is free, open, secure, and prosperous,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters.

Between the lines: Friday’s Camp David gathering was also the first time since 2015 that the presidential retreat in Maryland has hosted a summit of foreign leaders, according to the White House.

  • Speaking to reporters, one senior White House official compared Friday’s gathering to the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians that former President Clinton conducted at Camp David in 2000. Those talks later collapsed and led to the Second Intifada.

What’s next: The U.S., South Korea and Japan agreed to hold annual trilateral summit, and regular meetings between cabinet-level officials.


Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian and professor of history at Boston College, where she teaches courses on the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the American West, and the Plains Indians. She previously taught history at MIT and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Cox Richarson has written 10 books on history and American politics, her most popular is  “How the South Won the Civil War”. Richardson is president of The Historical Society, an organization designed to bring academic history to general readers.

EnergiesNet.com 08 18 2023

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