A new Camp David hedge to counter China’s rise

China’s growing assertiveness and being vocal in regional and global development hasn’t only shifted its accommodation to global practices and order, it also began to threaten the fine fabric that kept global order since the end of the Cold War. North Korea and its nuclear programme and Taiwan and its sovereignty issue has been a major issue in East Asia, and China’s response to such developments has alarmed countries like South Korea and Japan. With the US leading the approach to counter China in the region and Indo-Pacific region over the years has allowed many like-minded countries to bandwagon with the Biden administration to secure their shared interest and address threats emerging from China.

The establishment of the AUKUS, I2U2, CPTPP and other blocs like G7 and NATO, and the ongoing tech and trade war with China has become a part of today’s global geopolitics to thwart any Chinese aggression under President Xi Jinping’s leadership. Recent Camp David summit/meeting held on August 18, 2023, between the US, Japan and South Korea has opened a new era of trilateral cooperation between them in various domains. Unlike G7 and NATO’s annual meeting, this trilateral cooperation has allowed the US, Japan and South Korea to hold talks at different levels ranging from state heads to cabinet-level meetings over issues like the military and defence cooperation, the supply chain issue, emerging and advanced technologies, economic security, development assistance and countering disinformation. Such cooperation will allow the US to proceed with the 1969 Nixon-Sato the ‘Korea Clause’ to establish a strong trilateral cooperation between the US, Japan and South Korea, which has been stymied by a weak Japan-South Korea bilateral relationship.

Growing Chinese threat

As China drives 1/3 of the global economy, a slump recovery of the Chinese economy has become a matter of concern for the global economy recovery. If the Chinese economic growth witnesses a growth of 1% point will boost the global economy by 0.3% point, and thus recovery of the Chinese is needed. West decoupling from the Chinese economy and growing US-China trade and tech war has started to impact the Chinese economy and has enhanced Chinese assertiveness to ensure the Chinese Communist Party’s control, relevance and dominance at home is secured. China’s economic, financial and military actions to secure its national interest and Chinese-led developments in the South China Sea, East China Sea, the Korean Peninsula and the ongoing US-China rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region made the Chinese threat to Japan, South Korea and the US concerning and alarming. On the other hand, China argues that to thwart the West and a quasi-NATO plus in the region, it needs to make full diplomatic and military preparation and strengthen its cooperation with its neighbours, especially Russia, to uphold true multilateralism and defend the region’s peace and stability.

Slow Chinese economic growth coupled with domestic economic woes has prompted fear in its neighbours like Japan, South Korea and many ASEAN members that China will act more aggressively in the near future. With China’s military capabilities mature, military actions by China in future can’t be ignored as the US prohibitory measures to strengthen its economy and counter China’s rise have alarmed China. As China’s naval presence and actions in the South China Sea have increased, the recent deployment of swarms of Chinese satellites like Shiyan 12-01, Shijian-17 and Shijian-23 to spy recently concluded the Malabar Exercise, such Chinese actions will increase in the coming years. As China view, developments in its vicinity are directed against its rise, which will only destabilise the Asia-Pacific region. China argues nations are becoming US hatchet men to serve its goals, which will only incite confrontation in the region.

The Camp David Meeting: Development of New Axis

Japan and South Korea recognise China and its aggressive maritime policies as a major threat, which today, coupled with North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal and planned spy satellite, puts Japan and South Korea to strengthen the bilateral ties to address such concerning issues. The recently concluded Japan-South Korean-US Camp David meeting resulted from improved ties between Japan and South Korea. Deteriorating economic and bilateral ties between Japan and China and South Korea and China, with increased competition from China in recent years, have pushed Japan and South Korea to play a greater and vital role in Northeast and East Asia’s geopolitics.

South Korea and Japan have addressed their historical differences – Japan’s colonial and wartime legacy – and have aligned to counter Chinese influence in Northeast Asia, which also happened due to external pressure. As the US is actively working to bring its allies, new friends and strategic partners under the same umbrella, which will not only create prospects for both but also help them to counter China in the near future. Such developments in the coming years will increase, expanding the anti-China alliance and pushing China to be more assertive in its approach unilaterally and through Chinese-controlled blocs and institutions.

The Camp David resulted from rapprochement between South Korea and Japan as the threat posed by China’s economic transformation has today eclipsed Japan-South Korea’s long-standing trade rivalries. With the Chinese and North Korean dimensions playing a vital role in such a development, the improvement of South Korea-Japan bilateral ties also happened due to a meeting of minds between South Korean President Yoon Suk and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on security issues. Japan and South Korea’s trade relationship with China has shifted from strong complementarities to increasing competition in key strategic industries.

The Camp David meeting is viewed as a milestone in the Northeast and East Asian region geopolitics, similar to the scale and impact of the AUKUS and I2U2. It allowed the US, Japan and South Korea to agree to expand the economic and security relationship. It cemented a new agreement and formed a new trilateral ally system to address the tense ties with China and North Korea. ‘The Camp David Principle’ and ‘Spirit of Camp David are agreed upon, with the former setting guidelines for trilateral cooperation and later outlining the vision for cooperation and implementing the Camp David’s plans. A hotline communication is created to guarantee that the Camp David plan is carried out and that the organisation strives to ensure a secure world. US President Biden argues such cooperation is not about China but rather to focus on broader security issues. However, the concluding joint statement mentioned China while highlighting its dangerous and aggressive actions in the South China Sea region. The statement argues it strongly opposes any unilateral attempts by a country to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Under this new trilateral security cooperation, to address the crisis emerging from China and North Korea, Japan, South Korea, and the US agree to consult, share information and align their messaging with each other in the face of a threat or crisis. The role, place and significance of Camp David in the US and world history today brought Japan and South Korea together to address security concerns emerging from China and North Korea to an extent. Forging the new trilateral relationship strengthens the US treaty ally system with Japan and South Korea to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and address Chinese economic coercion.

Challenges Ahead to counter China’s rise

China views the development as an effort to develop a Pacific version of NATO to encircle and curtail its rise and growth. It criticised the move as a starting shot for a cold war, which will bring more risks. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs argues that such developments and events will transform the Asia-Pacific region’s peace and development into an arena for geopolitical games. The ministry further argues the attempts to form exclusive small cliques or groups will bring camp confrontation, and military blocs in the region will remain unpopular in the region. With South Korea’s top focus being on the developments in the Korean peninsula, which isn’t a top priority for the US and Japan, the loss of all three nations will be different. China argues such aspects are concerning for South Korea, who will be a loser in such an arrangement.

To make the meeting a success, it requires a strong coordination based on a more robust institutional foundation between the US, Japan and South Korea. As US President Joe Biden argues, annual multidomain military exercises will bring the bilateral defence cooperation to an unprecedented level. The initiative will assist the group in building a strong commitment as Japanese PM Kishida argues the international community is at a turning point in history, and the US-Japan-South Korea collaboration needs to ensure the trilateral security coordination reaches new heights in coming years.

The meeting is directed to address such concerning issues, and they are aware that the Japan-South Korea rapprochement has a time frame of four years to cement their newfound ties – South Korean President Yoon Suk is risking his political capital to mend the bilateral ties with Japan. The Camp David meeting was a standalone and did not happen at the side-line of any major global summit like the NATO, G7 and G20. The meeting ensured the work done in the previous two meetings between Japan and South Korea was secured to strengthen bilateral trade, ties and strategic relationships under newly established trilateral security cooperation.

The Camp David summit is of global significance, which will lay the roadmap for South Korea, Japan and the US to coordinate their efforts on military and security while ensuring global economic stability. The summit highlights a consensus has been established to push and counter the destabilising impact of the Chinese threat. The summit’s significance can’t be ignored, as they have to ensure grassroots support between them for the unwavering support of the Camp David Principle. However, the question remains with the US Presidential election 2024, will a new US President be as motivated as Biden for such meetings or not? A no-show from the US President to the summit will impact the trilateral defence and economic cooperation to thwart an aggressive posture from China and North Korea. Despite the Camp David summit’s scopes and limitations, the trilateral cooperation has unanimously agreed to take necessary measures to confront any challenges the Indo-Pacific region faces from authoritarian rulers.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Kashif Anwar
Kashif Anwar is a Research Analyst at the Global Strategic & Defence Analyses (GSDN), New Delhi. He has an M.Phil in International Studies.
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