The United States, Japan and South Korea have agreed to a new security pledge committing the three countries to consult with each other in the event of a security crisis or threat in the Pacific, according to Biden administration officials.
Details about the new “duty to consult” commitment emerged as President Joe Biden prepared Friday to welcome South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for a summit at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.
The agreement is one of several joint efforts that the leaders are expected to announce at the daylong summit, as the three countries look to tighten security and economic ties amid increasing concerns about North Korea’s persistent nuclear threats and China’s provocations in the Pacific.
“Suffice it to say, this is a big deal,” Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Friday shortly before the formal start of the summit. “It is a historic event, and it sets the conditions for a more peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific, and a stronger and more secure United States of America,”
Kishida, before departing Tokyo on Thursday, told reporters the summit would be a “historic occasion to bolster trilateral strategic cooperation” with Seoul and Washington.
“I believe it is extremely meaningful to hold a Japan-U.S.-South Korea summit where leaders of the three countries gather just as the security environment surrounding Japan is increasingly severe,” he said.
Before it even began, the summit drew harsh public criticism from the Chinese government.
“The international community has its own judgment as to who is creating contradictions and increasing tensions,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters Friday.
“Attempts to form various exclusive groups and cliques and to bring bloc confrontation into the Asia-Pacific region are unpopular and will definitely spark vigilance and opposition in the countries of the region,” Wang said.
Sullivan pushed back against the Chinese concerns. “It’s explicitly not a NATO for the Pacific,” Sullivan said. “This partnership is not against anyone, it is for something. It is for a vision of the Indo Pacific that is free, open, secure and prosperous.”
The “duty to consult” pledge is intended to acknowledge that the three countries share “fundamentally interlinked security environments” and that a threat to one of the nations is “a threat to all,” according to a senior Biden administration official. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the coming announcement.
Under the pledge, the three countries agree to consult, share information and align their messaging with each other in the face of a threat or crisis, the official said. The commitment does not infringe on each country’s right to defend itself under international law, nor does it alter existing bilateral treaty commitments between the U.S. and Japan and the U.S. and South Korea, the official added. The United States has more than 80,000 troops based in the two countries.
The summit is the first Biden has held during his presidency at the storied Camp David. Yoon arrived first. The three leaders will hold formal talks and a press conference. But Biden is hoping to use much of the day with the two leaders as a more informal opportunity to tighten their bond.
The U.S. president planned to take Kishida and Yoon on a walk on the picturesque grounds and host them—and a few senior aides— for a lunch.
The retreat 65 miles (104.6 kilometers) from the White House was where President Jimmy Carter brought together Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in September 1978 for talks that established a framework for a historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in March 1979. In the midst of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met at the retreat — then known as Shangri-La — to plan the Italian campaign that would knock Benito Mussolini out of the war.
Biden’s focus for the gathering is to nudge the United States’ two closest Asian allies to further tighten security and economic cooperation with each other. The historic rivals have been divided by differing views of World War II history and Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
But under Kishida and Yoon, the two countries have begun a rapprochement as the two conservative leaders grapple with shared security challenges posed by North Korea and China. Both leaders have been upset by the stepped-up cadence of North Korea’s ballistic missile tests and Chinese military exercises near Taiwan, the self-ruled island that is claimed by Beijing as part of its territory, and other aggressive action.
Yoon proposed an initiative in March to resolve disputes stemming from compensation for wartime Korean forced laborers. He announced that South Korea would use its own funds to compensate Koreans enslaved by Japanese companies before the end of World War II.
Yoon also traveled to Tokyo that month for talks with Kishida, the first such visit by a South Korean president in more than 12 years. Kishida reciprocated with a visit to Seoul in May and expressed sympathy for the suffering of Korean forced laborers during Japan’s colonial rule.
The three leaders are also expected to detail in their summit communique plans to invest in technology for a three-way crisis hotline and offer an update on progress the countries have made on sharing early-warning data on missile launches by North Korea.
Other announcements expected to come out of the summit include plans to expand military cooperation on ballistic defenses and to make the summit an annual event. Sullivan said the leaders would also commit on Friday to a multiyear planning process for joint military exercises.
The White House has billed the gathering of the three leaders at the rustic retreat in the Catoctin Mountains as a historic moment in the relationship and an opportunity for South Korea and Japan to move beyond decades of antagonism.
The leaders are also likely to discuss the long-running territorial conflicts in the disputed South China Sea involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
Earlier this month, the Philippine government summoned China’s ambassador and presented a strongly worded diplomatic protest over the Chinese coast guard’s use of water cannons in a confrontation with Philippine vessels in the South China Sea.
That tense hours-long standoff occurred near Second Thomas Shoal, which has been occupied for decades by Philippine forces stationed onboard a rusting, grounded navy ship. It is also claimed by China.
Ambassador Rahm Emanuel, Biden’s envoy to Japan, said the administration is in part looking to counter what he calls Beijing’s bullying tactics and its confidence that Washington can’t get its two most important Pacific allies — Japan and South Korea — to get along.
“Our message is we’re a permanent Pacific power and presence and you can bet long on America,” Emanuel said at a Brookings Institution event focused on the summit. “China’s message: ‘We’re the rising power, they’re declining. Either get in line or you’re gonna get the Philippine treatment.’ ”