Two willing leaders in Seoul and Tokyo, a private push from President Joe Biden, and an encroaching China.
That’s what it took to get Japan and South Korea to meet for a first-of-its-kind summit with Biden at Camp David later today, a significant step to mend the two nations’ historically fraught relationship.
Though their leaders have huddled together in the past on the sidelines of big international gatherings, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea have never gathered for a formal trilateral meeting.
Friday’s represents a detente years in the making, ushered in by an Yoon Suk-yeol administration in South Korea eager to repair relations despite domestic political pressures and a receptive Fumio Kishida in Japan. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called it the start of a “new era.”
The countries are drawing closer together in order to counter China’s growing influence and an increasingly aggressive North Korea, which has test-fired scores of missiles since last year.
“I do think the most important factor spurring the progress is the change in government in South Korea and the combined security threats,” said Lisa Curtis, director of the Center for a New American Security’s Indo-Pacific Security Program, who added that Russia-China cooperation was also a factor.
But U.S. attempts to strengthen its position against China in the region remain fraught: As of last night, the parties were still negotiating over whether official summit documents would even mention China, Japan’s Foreign Ministry press secretary Hikariko Ono told a small group of reporters at a briefing Thursday evening in Washington.
Biden also helped lay the groundwork for the summit, his first at Camp David. One senior administration official pointed to last November’s meetings in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, saying Biden gave Yoon and Kishida assurances of U.S. support even when there was “discouragement and questions about what was going to be possible” given domestic political forces in both countries.
Biden’s “long experience, his wisdom, and his seniority are frankly quite well regarded in Asia,” the official told reporters. “So his ability to basically sit down and encourage and apply what I would call a kind of ‘strategic empathy’ made a big difference.”
The leaders are supposed to ink a few important agreements: they plan to set up a security hotline, agree to an annual trilateral summit, and commit to consulting one another in the event of a security crisis, according to senior Biden administration officials.
The three countries will also lay new plans to address so-called “economic coercion” — usually a reference to China’s weaponization of trade in its foreign policy — and minimize global supply chain disruptions.
The countries will also agree to set up a working group on North Korean cyber activity, Ono said.
Seoul and Tokyo have historically bitter relations, thanks to Japan’s brutal occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century. Past efforts by the U.S. to smooth frictions have faltered, and tensions mounted over a 2018 ruling in South Korea calling on Japanese companies to compensate victims of forced labor during the 1910-45 colonial period.
But Yoon has sought to end the dispute over forced labor payments. “That was a big breakthrough,” Ono said. He and Kishida have made trips to each others’ countries for bilateral meetings in recent months; Friday’s meeting will be their fifth since the start of the year.
Though the meeting itself is a significant breakthrough, there are legitimate questions about whether the countries can sustain this kind of enhanced cooperation, because of the domestic headwinds Yoon and Kishida may withstand. Yoon faced blowback from his political opposition for a recent speech on South Korea’s Liberation Day, which officially marks the end of Japan’s colonial rule, in which he argued for tighter security cooperation with Tokyo and didn’t bring up past grievances, for instance.
A change in administration — in any of the three countries — could also prompt a shift in approach.
Room for Disagreement
The Biden administration is hoping to take steps to lock in the new cooperation and make it difficult to unravel, which will likely involve regular meetings between defense and diplomatic officials at lower levels.
Administration officials also don’t seem too worried about U.S. political forces working against progress. “These efforts are deeply bipartisan,” the senior administration official said.
The View From China
The leaders at the summit are expected to handle talk about China carefully. Chinese officials are already signaling its displeasure over the meeting.
“China has noticed some exclusionary groupings being assembled for the so-called ‘regional security,’ only to intensify antagonism and undermine the strategic security of other countries,” Chinese embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu said in a statement.
Biden, Kishida and Yoon cannot waste the opportunity to show they stand united at Friday’s summit because “the risks of war in Asia have become acute,” a top State Department official under Barack Obama’s administration writes.