Japan Forward

How the Camp David Summit Can Advance Trilateral Cooperation

After years of challenges, here are some suggestions for the Camp David summit to lock in across-the-board benefits of better Japan–United States–South Korea cooperation.

Senior Fellow, Japan Chair
US President Joe Baden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol pose prior to the US-South Korea-Japan trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit on May 21, 2023, in Hiroshima, Japan. (Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
US President Joe Baden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol pose prior to the US-South Korea-Japan trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit on May 21, 2023, in Hiroshima, Japan. (Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Make no mistake, the August 18 United States–Japan–Republic of Korea trilateral summit at Camp David is a historic event.

Yes, President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and President Yoon Suk-yeol have met before. But it has always been as a sidebar to a major international gathering. Most recently they met on the sidelines of the May 2023 G7 Summit in Hiroshima. Shortly before, they met during the November 2022 East Asian Summit in Phnom Penh. 

This time, the main event is the Camp David Summit itself. 

For the United States, the coming together of this trilateral summit has been a long-sought policy objective spanning multiple administrations. 

Why Now?

The short answer is that the summit represents a confluence of emerging political and strategic realities.

This begins at the political level. President Yoon decided to put a long, contentious history with Japan, presently reflected in the Korean courts' wartime labor lawsuits, in the rear-view mirror and focus on the future of South Korea-Japan relations.

President Yoon's visit to Tokyo in March and Prime Minister Kishida's return visit to Seoul in May opened the door to a future of alliance-based trilateral cooperation. It is this relationship that the Biden administration is focused on developing and expanding.

At the strategic level, the Indo-Pacific strategies of the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, all speak to the importance of broad-based trilateral cooperation. The same can be said of their respective national security documents.

Addressing Challenges from Security to Regional Development

At the same time, growing strategic challenges in Northeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific are driving a trilateral convergence.

All three allies recognize the threat posed by North Korea to their security and to the rules-based international order. Those begin with Pyongyang's rapidly developing nuclear and missile programs. 

There is also a shared understanding that the existing rules-based international order is now under pressure. All three countries are concerned about how it is being challenged in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

And all three allies recognize the importance of addressing the pressing challenges of the Indo-Pacific. Specifically, these include unilateral efforts to change the status quo by force or coercion, the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight, and the development needs of the region.

Taking Trilateral Cooperation to the Next Level

Thus, the trilateral Camp David Summit comes at a most opportune time. It will allow the allies to bring together their collective, diplomatic, military, economic, and technological capabilities. They can use these to advance a commonly shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

The question now facing President Biden, Prime Minister Kishida, and President Yoon is where trilateral cooperation goes from the Camp David Summit.

Below are a number of policy-oriented suggestions.

Make it an Annual Event

First, as to the summit itself, this should become an annual stand-alone event. Rotate it among the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. This is to underscore the importance of trilateral cooperation.

Create a Trilateral 'Wiseman's Group'

Second, at the summit, the leaders should announce the intent to establish a trilateral "Wiseman's Group." It would be composed of former government officials, private sector leaders, academics, and other interested parties. 

These members would be charged with developing a future-oriented vision for trilateral cooperation. This is critical to build understanding and political support within democracies for trilateral endeavors.

Engage Lawmakers in the Trilateral Exchange

Third, at the summit, the leaders should announce their intent to promote a semi-annual trilateral political dialogue among members of Congress, Japan's Diet, and South Korea's National Assembly. Face-to-face meetings can be difficult to arrange, given demanding legislative schedules. However, technology can provide an answer. Zoom or similar platforms are now available and can support this initiative. 

Dialogue among political leaders is an important step in building their understanding of trilateral cooperation. And, in turn, lawmakers from the three allies will be better able to explain the benefits to their respective constituents. 

Regularlize Defense Exercises for Security Cooperation

Fourth, with respect to North Korea, the starting point for security cooperation is to regularize anti-submarine, missile defense, and air exercises on a trilateral basis. At the same time, the real time-sharing of intelligence, as agreed to in the Phnom Penh Statement and at the G7 Summit, needs to be implemented without delay. This is critical to enhancing deterrence and ultimately missile defense integration. 

Also, with respect to enhancing deterrence, leaders should consider expanding the current bilateral US-Japan and US-South Korea extended deterrence dialogues. 

In creating the Nuclear Consultative Group, the Washington Declaration addressed extended deterrence issues in the US-Korea relationship. The United States, South Korea, and Japan face the same expanding, multidimensional threat from North Korea. Therefore, consideration should be given to expanding the bilateral format to include Japan, and, down the road, Australia as well. 

Focus on the Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific

Fifth, with regard to the Indo-Pacific, the Phnom Penh Statement on US-Japan-Republic of Korea Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific, November 22, 2022, points the way to broader trilateral cooperation. 

It begins by committing the allies to "work together in a trilateral format at all levels of government to implement our approaches to the Indo-Pacific …" 

The statement is focused on cooperation in meeting the development needs of ASEAN and the Pacific Island countries. These include maritime domain awareness, sustainable development, connectivity, clean energy, and climate change among others. 

In the Indo-Pacific, our collective strengths rest in our economies and technologies. Each field of trilateral cooperation is directed at advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific and providing common goods. None are adversarial in nature. 

At the summit, leaders should consider setting up an intergovernmental trilateral Phnom Penh planning group. Given the commitments in each country's Indo-Pacific strategy and Phnom Penh Statement, 

Such a planning group would work to prioritize and de-conflict individual country commitments to the benefit of recipient countries. It would take advantage of each country's commitments in the Indo-Pacific strategies and Phnom Penh Statement.

From a strategic perspective, the Phnom Penh Statement is significant in explicitly aligning the Republic of Korea with the United States and Japan in pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific. It is an unstated but clear opposition to China's coercive and unlawful activities in the region.

Acknowledging the Importance and Progress in Bilateral Relations

Finally, it is important to avoid any Panglossian perspective. However much the Biden administration and the United States will want to advance trilateral cooperation, the critical element that will determine its future is the South Korea-Japan relationship. And here the challenges of history, politics, and China remain.

Yet, today, after the events of the past several months, the trilateral relationship is, without question, at a high point.  It has already achieved the Yoon-Kishida bilateral summits and the trilateral on the side of the G7 Hiroshima Summit. 

Now, the Camp David Summit provides an opportunity to lock in across-the-board benefits of trilateral cooperation. 

Read in Japan Forward.