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A New Shift in Regional Equilibrium

Sep 05, 2023
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

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From left, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida meet at Camp David on August 15. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

A trilateral summit was held recently at Camp David, Maryland, with U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and Republic of Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol. They reached a multitude of agreements to enhance their collaboration. The meeting represents a significant stride by the United States, motivated by its Cold War mentality, to form exclusive circles, which could further disrupt the stability of the Asia-Pacific region and contribute to a new shift in regional equilibrium. 

Camp David, a vacation resort for U.S. presidents and a historic site for significant diplomatic events, was chosen as the location for the first formal trilateral summit of the three leaders. The selection underscores the distinctive relations between the United States and the other two countries, as well as the so-called historic importance of this particular trilateral collaboration. The event was heavily publicized by all three countries, which sought to draw attention from all quarters. 

The summit concluded with a lengthy joint statement addressing various regional and international issues — dubbed the Spirit of Camp David. The main outcomes included the creation of a trilateral security hotline, boosted security consultations and coordination, regular summits and fortified supply chain cooperation in crucial sectors. These measures underscore the strategic planning and institutionalization of the trilateral collaboration. 

Consequently, the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea will hold six vital annual meetings of leaders, foreign ministers, defense ministers, national security advisors, finance ministers, and commerce ministers. Despite the historical disputes between Japan and the ROK, the inaugural separate meeting of the leaders and the outcomes of related meetings have been hailed by numerous Western media outlets as a “historic breakthrough.” 

The Camp David summit exemplifies a fresh approach by the United States to execute its confrontational strategy through the creation of small groups. Since it started crafting and executing a new global strategy revolving around great power competition, the formation of various exclusive circles has been an integral part of its strategic advancement. In the Asia-Pacific region alone, the United States has initiated numerous exclusive circles in recent years, spanning various domains, including regional economic cooperation, infrastructure development, maritime situational awareness and Coast Guard cooperation. The AUKUS trilateral security agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia exemplifies the promotion of small group confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region by the U.S. The outcomes of the Camp David summit suggest that the trilateral collaboration of the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea has largely mirrored some of the fundamental traits of the AUKUS alliance. 

Víctor Cha, senior vice president for Asia and the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, posited that the trilateral joint statement at Camp David is a collective security statement reminiscent of NATO. It doesn’t amount to NATO, but it’s close. In this light, the security collaboration between the United States, UK and Australia, along with the trilateral collaboration of the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea, constitute the core structure of America’s dual-directional promotion of group confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region. This development also signifies a vital step for the United States to elevate its alliance system in the region. The campification and confrontational nature of the trilateral cooperation of the U.S., Japan and ROK could potentially intensify regional security disputes. 

First, the alliance has perpetuated instability on the Korean Peninsula. Recent provocative actions, including military exercises by the United States and ROK, coupled with public declarations that the trilateral summit had fortified their response toward the DPRK “threat,” have exacerbated the situation. These actions, rather than resolving Cold War leftovers or promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula, will only serve to escalate tensions further. 

Second, the joint statement by the U.S., Japan and ROK extensively addresses questions concerning the South China Sea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and vital supply chains. It amplifies the alleged “economic coercion” and “aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea and appears to target China. The rhetoric erodes the fragile trust among these nations and infringes upon their strategic security interests. Such a strategy, which pursues self-security at the expense of others’ security interests and regional peace, could engender a more generalized sense of insecurity. 

The long-term implications of the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation on order in the Asia-Pacific also warrant close attention. While the sustainability of this partnership is still in question, particularly in terms of a potential reconciliation between Japan and the ROK, the Camp David summit has already made progress on the United States’ strategic intent to restructure the alliance system. The reformation of the U.S.-led alliance in the Asia-Pacific region will undeniably shape the long-term trajectory of the regional order. From the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) — involving the U.S., Japan, India and Australia — to the AUKUS alliance and the so-called Spirit of Camp David, new trends are emerging in the U.S. alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region, including network alliances, issue-based cooperation and economic integration. 

The Spirit of Camp David encompasses economic security cooperation, supply chain coordination and technological collaboration. This security-centric economic cooperation extends traditional military security alliances, indicating a significant shift in regional security relations. It may also have unforeseen impacts on regional economic and trade cooperation, deeply influencing the Asia-Pacific economic cooperation framework. This alteration of the regional order, with substantial economic implications, carries serious strategic significance.

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