Discover more from Letters from an American
August 18, 2023
Do you remember last April, when the president of South Korea (formally the Republic of Korea, or ROK), Yoon Suk Yeol, sang “American Pie” at the U.S. state dinner held in his country’s honor? That was part of a historic shift in global, and U.S., foreign policy.
That shift is being marked this weekend at the U.S. president’s private retreat in Maryland, Camp David, about 60 miles outside of Washington, D.C., which since President Jimmy Carter’s presidency has signaled historically significant diplomatic meetings. (This is one of the reasons why former president Trump’s plan to bring Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders to Camp David to sign a peace plan was so shocking; in the end, Trump never hosted a foreign leader at Camp David.)
President Biden is meeting at Camp David with President Yoon and Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida in the first-ever trilateral summit between their countries. Japan and the ROK are two of the largest allies of the U.S. in eastern Asia, but their own history of conflicts has made the idea of a joint summit impossible before now.
In remarks to reporters this morning, President Biden thanked his counterparts for their “political courage” and for stepping up to do the hard and, arguably, historic work “to forge a foundation from which we can face the future together.” President Yoon responded by noting the significance of meeting at Camp David, and predicting that “our trilateral partnership is opening a new chapter, which carries great significance.” Prime Minister Kishida agreed that the three “are indeed making a new history as of today. The international community is at a turning point in history,” he said.
It was also significant that in his short remarks, Kishida expressed his gratitude “for Joe’s initiative.” As Sue Mi Terry, who directs Japan and Korea affairs at the National Security Council, and Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote yesterday in the Washington Post, “[i]t is hard to exaggerate the significance of Friday’s summit at Camp David,” and while “[t]he primary acclaim must go to the courageous leader of South Korea and the pragmatic leader of Japan for moving beyond historical grievances…the Biden administration also deserves considerable credit for enabling this rapprochement.”
From its beginning, the Biden administration has sought to strengthen democracy at home and abroad, but promoting democracy without colonialism has always been a problem for the U.S. Biden and his advisors have apparently tried to square that circle by reconceiving of global affairs based on regional power, with the U.S. taking a seat at the table rather than dictating terms through military might. The Indo-Pacific has been key to that reconception.
In February 2022, the Biden administration released a document outlining its “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” claiming that the U.S. is part of the Indo-Pacific region, which stretches from our Pacific coastline to the Indian Ocean. The area, the report says, “is home to more than half of the world’s people, nearly two-thirds of the world’s economy, and seven of the world’s largest militaries. More members of the U.S. military are based in the region than in any other outside the United States. It supports more than three million American jobs and is the source of nearly $900 billion in foreign direct investment in the United States. In the years ahead, as the region drives as much as two-thirds of global economic growth, its influence will only grow—as will its importance to the United States.”
With its new strategy the administration promised to compete responsibly with China not by changing it but by shaping the strategic environment in which it operates, “building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share.” Crucially, the document focused not on the trade deals that made the Trans-Pacific Partnership so unpopular, but on ideological ones, promoting “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” where countries “can make independent political choices free from coercion.”
Since then, the Biden administration has emphasized cooperation with countries in the region. It has featured cooperation with the “Quad,” the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, consisting of the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan; AUKUS, the trilateral pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., formed in 2021; the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an economic and political union of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, whose population is more than 600 million people; the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), formed in May 2022 and including the U.S., India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam; and the Pacific Islands Forum, an intergovernmental organization of Pacific Island nations. (Remember when Biden had to cut short a trip to Papua New Guinea to deal with the Republican refusal to raise the debt ceiling? That would have been the first visit ever by a sitting U.S. president.)
Biden noted today, “[S]trengthening the ties between our democracies has long been a priority for me, dating back to when I was vice president of the United States. That’s because our countries are stronger and the world is safer—let me say that again—our countries are stronger and the world will be safer as we stand together. And I know this is a belief we all three share.” He has worked toward such cooperation since he took office, hosting leaders from Japan and the ROK shortly after he took office and visiting those countries on his first foreign trip to Asia, cultivating his own personal ties and those of senior staff with their foreign counterparts.
The trilateral meeting will focus on presenting a united front against the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and providing an alternative to China for smaller countries to cooperate with. It will also emphasize plans for long-term economic and military cooperation. This afternoon the three leaders released a joint statement called “The Spirit of Camp David.” It hailed that the statement comes at “a time of unparalleled opportunity for our countries and our citizens, and at a hinge point of history, when geopolitical competition, the climate crisis, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, and nuclear provocations test us. This is a moment that requires unity and coordinated action from true partners, and it is a moment we intend to meet, together. Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States are determined to align our collective efforts because we believe our trilateral partnership advances the security and prosperity of all our people, the region, and the world.”
It calls for the three countries to consult with each other over regional challenges and threats, sharing information, aligning messaging, and coordinating responses. That cooperation will require annual trilateral meetings at the highest levels of government among the three countries. Japan, the ROK, and the U.S. confirmed the centrality of ASEAN in the region and reiterated their support for Pacific Island countries.
The statement says the three countries “share concerns about actions inconsistent with the rules-based international order, which undermine regional peace and prosperity,” by which they mean “dangerous and aggressive behavior” from the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea. They called again for North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The U.S. “unequivocally reaffirms” that “the full range of U.S. capabilities” backs Japan and the ROK as a deterrent to North Korea, and all three countries reaffirmed their commitment to Ukraine.
The statement contains promises of scientific and economic cooperation—neither Japan nor ROK likes that the U.S. tax break for electric vehicles only applies to ones made in North America—as well as an agreement to work together to combat disinformation.
“As we embark together in this new era, our shared values will be our guide and a free and open Indo-Pacific, in which our half-billion people are safe and prosperous, will be our collective purpose,” they wrote. “We depart Camp David with a shared resolve and optimism for the future. The opportunity that lies before us was not guaranteed—it was embraced. It is the product of a determination, fiercely held by each of us, that if we are to deliver a peaceful and prosperous future for our people, and the people of the Indo-Pacific, we must more often stand together.”