Camp David Summit: Trilateral Alliance Dynamics among US, Japan, and South Korea

By Saud Faisal Malik | Gwadar Pro Aug 18, 2023

Editor's Note: The author is Saud Faisal Malik, CEO of Daily CPEC. The article only reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily of Gwadar Pro.

In the ever-shifting geopolitical landscape of the Asia-Pacific region, the recently announced Camp David summit between the United States, Japan, and South Korea has generated considerable anticipation. The three nations are expected to unveil joint initiatives on technology, education, and ballistic missile defense, signaling an effort to solidify their alliance. This event, aimed at "institutionalizing, deepening and thickening the habits of cooperation," has been heralded as a major diplomatic breakthrough and a significant enhancement in trilateral ties. However, beneath the surface of this seemingly united front, the divergent self-interests of the parties involved cast a shadow on the sustainability and authenticity of this alliance.

The primary driver behind this alliance, particularly for the United States, is the containment of China's growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region. The Biden administration has been actively courting allies in an anti-China coalition to secure its hegemonic status. Gerard Baker, Editor at Large of The Wall Street Journal, aptly notes that while the collaboration ostensibly revolves around addressing North Korea's threat, its larger strategic significance lies in countering China. U.S. Ambassador in Tokyo, Rahm Emanuel, has also openly acknowledged the China-centric focus of the summit.

The summit will highlight the Biden administration's efforts to institutionalize trilateral security cooperation, linking the three countries together in a phony alliance based on intelligence sharing, missile defense, cybersecurity, and stronger nuclear deterrent.

However, this ambition is at odds with the economic reality of Asian countries deeply integrated with China. These nations are not inclined to choose sides between Beijing and Washington; instead, they seek to extract maximum benefits from their interactions with both superpowers. The fragility of the U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance becomes evident when it is considered that these nations' political and economic aspirations do not align with the U.S.'s containment agenda.

The Camp David meeting will add to the trilateral cake that has been baking for the past year. This will take the form of a joint declaration, which is still being negotiated, outlining a common security vision and interests, with some reference to North Korea and China, as well as the Ukraine war. An agreement on mutual consultation in crisis situations, as well as the holding of annual trilateral summits, is also on the agenda. Economic security issues such as semiconductor cooperation and technology relations with China will also be discussed at the meeting.
However, it seems that this falls short of what the Americans had planned.

For Japan, this alliance is less about shared political aspirations and more about pragmatic interests. The Japanese government views the alliance as a practical tool to further its concrete objectives, leveraging Washington's support on international matters. An illustrative example is Japan's handling of the nuclear-contaminated water discharge issue. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to explain the scientific basis and safety of the discharge during the summit, underscoring Tokyo's anticipation of Washington's backing. Japan's willingness to dance to the U.S.'s tune in exchange for tangible gains underscores the transactional nature of their relationship.

However, the Japanese share the same concerns as the Koreans about the need to prevent a full-fledged economic war with China and to continue to seek methods to engage Beijing. Ironically, that is true as well for the U.S. although its current political climate does not allow a frank discussion of this reality, though that is changing slightly.

A telling incident that occurred just before the summit highlights the alliance's frailty. A dispute between the U.S. and Japan over whaling, intertwined with trade negotiations, exposed the fragility of their collaboration. Japanese officials hinted at the possibility of walking away from trade deals, underscoring that their engagement with the U.S. hinges on securing concrete interests.

For South Korea, the primary concern revolves around achieving a peaceful resolution of the Korean Peninsula issue, rather than containing China. This divergence of priorities within the alliance is a major factor undermining its cohesion. The Camp David summit, while emphasizing cooperation, may inadvertently escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula, potentially pushing North Korea further in its nuclear ambitions. This outcome is certainly not in South Korea's interest, highlighting the disconnect between the summit's intended outcomes and the priorities of the parties involved.

As the Camp David summit approaches, it becomes increasingly evident that the U.S., Japan, and South Korea are leveraging the event to further their own agendas. While the rhetoric of "institutionalizing, deepening and thickening the habits of cooperation" is echoed, the reality is that each nation's individual calculations and interests are driving their participation. This dynamic inherently results in a fragile alliance, as the unity is founded on divergent interests rather than shared values.

The Camp David summit, poised to cement the U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance, reflects a complex web of political interests, economic aspirations, and strategic calculations. While the rhetoric of cooperation and unity may dominate the narrative, the underlying reality reveals a much more intricate and fragile framework. As Washington seeks to contain China, Japan aims for pragmatic gains, and South Korea navigates the challenges of the Korean Peninsula, it is evident that the alliance is a tapestry woven from diverse threads. The true test of the alliance's strength will depend on its ability to withstand the pressures arising from these divergent interests and foster a genuine foundation of collaboration.

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