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Biden, Asian leaders pledge deeper ties amid tensions with China, North Korea

Camp David summit aimed at three-way alliance that's 'built to last,' official says

From left, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida  arrive for a joint news conference following three-way talks at Camp David in Maryland on Friday.
From left, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrive for a joint news conference following three-way talks at Camp David in Maryland on Friday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden and two key Pacific allies on Friday announced a series of joint steps designed to check Chinese and North Korean military and economic aggression.

Flanked by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Biden told reporters after a summit at leafy Camp David that their goal was to make joint defense, science and technology, cancer research and other economic efforts as permanent as possible. While the trio were careful to not explicitly call out China, experts said Beijing’s actions have been pushing Washington, Tokyo and Seoul closer.

“Today, we declare openly that we are united in a common purpose to strengthen our shared region,” the three governments said in a joint statement released as the summit was concluding. “Our mandate is to ensure Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States are aligned in our objectives and in our actions.”

The U.S., Japanese and South Korean leaders announced enhanced joint work on technology and economic security, as well as missile defense. The latter is aimed at guarding against a potential North Korean launch as the reclusive government there continues to defy Washington and its allies with test after test. They also said they will hold more — and more frequent — joint military operations, something that no doubt will be noticed in Beijing and Pyongyang. What’s more, the countries will launch “early warning system pilots” to guard against economically disruptive supply chain problems and economic coercion — the latter is a warning to China, though the joint statement does not mention the Asian powerhouse in that section.

“If I seem like I’m happy, it’s because I am,” Biden said during a rare joint news conference from Camp David. “This has been a great, great meeting.”

“This is not about a day, or a week, or a month,” he said, in a clear message to China and North Korea. “It’s about decades and decades of relationships that we’re building.”

The joint efforts are what Richard Haass, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, called Thursday on MSNBC the latest step in a “quiet victory” for Biden when it comes to pushing back on China. Haass cited Biden’s decision to give Australia nuclear submarines, his tough stance on defending Taiwan, previous moves to work closer economically with Japan and South Korea, and the list of joint initiatives announced Friday, which trickled out this week in media reports.

Changes in the offing?

The summit came as global security experts are looking ahead, wondering how the three countries’ relations might change after coming elections. It also came as Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, contend Biden has been too weak in his China policy. Domestic politics hung over the summit.

For instance, there are concerns Yoon’s efforts to expand security partnerships with Washington and Tokyo “may not survive a South Korean political transition to a progressive administration,” according to Scott Snyder, U.S.-Korea program director at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“And security experts from South Korea and Japan wonder aloud whether current levels of coordination with the United States will be sustained following the U.S. presidential election next year,” Snyder added. “Thus, the Biden administration has pushed to institutionalize trilateral coordination in an attempt to lock in both allies and future U.S. leaderships to a collective commitment to bolster a rules-based — as opposed to a force-based — Indo-Pacific security order.”

Threats from North Korea and China have done the most to help bring about Biden’s goals of ramping up allies’ cooperation in the region, as well as American voters choosing the 46th president’s appreciation for alliances over Trump’s “America First” isolationism. During the news conference, when asked about Trump’s calls to decrease the U.S. military footprint on the Korean Peninsula, Biden said his predecessor’s foreign policy approach made America “weaker.”

The real threat to effective trilateralism, according to Snyder, is the three countries’ domestic political environments and deepening polarization — especially, he said, “in the domestic politics of the United States and South Korea, and its impact on the continuity of foreign policy during political leadership transitions.”

But Victor Cha, a former National Security Council official focused on the Asia-Pacific region, told reporters this week the triple alliance would likely use the Camp David summit to announce new security assurances and promises to one another.

“I don’t expect it will be an Article 5-type, NATO-type collective defense statement,” he said, referring to the European alliance’s attack-on-one-is-an-attack-on-all pact. “But I think they will get as close as they can to it talking about how the security of the countries are interlinked.”

That assessment tracked closely to what Biden and the other leaders announced at the presidential retreat in Maryland.

To be sure, however, the moves announced at Camp David were broader.

What the three leaders announced, Snyder said, is “intended as a booster shot for Washington’s alliances in the region. He noted those partnerships “are facing strong headwinds in the face of possible Chinese economic coercion and China’s political aspiration of regional centrality.”

The summit had one underlying theme: ensuring future leaders would have a hard time undoing the triple alliance.

“Today, we are going to lay a strong foundation for this trilateral partnership to make sure that it’s deep, it is strong and that it’s built to last,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Friday morning, before Biden sent Marine One to ferry Kishida and Yoon from Joint Base Andrews to Camp David. “We’re opening a new era, and we’re making sure that era has staying power.”

To that end, Biden told reporters “the intention” of making the three-way alliance more permanent is to ensure closer work among leaders and Cabinet-level officials “forever.”

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