Looming Over a New Security Pact: China, North Korea and Donald Trump

The new three-way security pact sealed by President Biden and the leaders of Japan and South Korea at Camp David on Friday was forged with threats by China and North Korea in mind. But there was one other possible factor driving the diplomatic breakthrough: Donald J. Trump.

While the former president’s name appeared nowhere in the “Camp David Principles” that the leaders issued at the presidential retreat, one of the subtexts was the possibility that he could return to power in next year’s election and disrupt ties with America’s two closest allies in the Indo-Pacific region.

Both Japan and South Korea struggled for four years as Mr. Trump threatened to scale back longstanding U.S. security and economic commitments while wooing China, North Korea and Russia. In formalizing a three-way alliance that had long eluded the United States, Mr. Biden and his counterparts hoped to lock in a strategic architecture that will endure regardless of who is in the White House next.

“This is not about a day, a week or month,” Mr. Biden said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan and President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea. “This is about decades and decades of relationships that we’re building.” The goal, he added, was to “lay in place a long-term structure for a relationship that will last.”

Asked by a reporter why Asia should be confident about American assurances given Mr. Trump’s campaign to recapture the presidency on a so-called America First platform, Mr. Biden offered a testimonial to the value of alliances in guaranteeing the nation’s security in dangerous times.

“There’s not much, if anything, I agree on with my predecessor on foreign policy,” Mr. Biden said, adding that “walking away from the rest of the world leaves us weaker, not stronger. America is strong with our allies and our alliances and that’s why we will endure.”

The meeting at the getaway in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland was a milestone in Mr. Biden’s efforts to stitch together a network of partnerships to counter Chinese aggression in the region. While the United States has long been close to Japan and South Korea individually, the two Asian powers have nursed generations of grievances that kept them at a distance from one another.

The alignment at Camp David was made possible by Mr. Yoon’s decision to try to put the past behind the two countries. His rapprochement with Tokyo has not been universally popular at home with a public that harbors long memories of the Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th century, but both sides made clear they are dedicated to a fresh start.

“That’s a long, bitter colonial wound that President Yoon has to jump over, and Kishida as well,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. “That I think is a consonant expression of the degree to which China’s rather belligerent, punitive behavior has driven together allies, partners and friends within Asia.”

Mr. Biden hoped to capitalize on that by bringing the Japanese and South Korean leaders together for the first stand-alone meeting between the three nations that was not on the sidelines of a larger international summit. He repeatedly praised Mr. Yoon and Mr. Kishida for “the political courage” they were demonstrating.

He chose the resonant setting of Camp David for the talks to emphasize the importance he attaches to the initiative, inviting the leaders to the storied retreat that has been the site of momentous events over the decades, including most memorably Jimmy Carter’s 13-day negotiation in 1978 brokering peace between Israel and Egypt.

“This is a big deal,” Mr. Biden said, noting that it was the first time he had invited foreign leaders to the camp since taking office. “This is a historic meeting.”

The others echoed the sentiments. “Today will be remembered as a historic day,” Mr. Yoon said. Mr. Kishida agreed, saying the fact that the three could get together “means that we are indeed making a new history as of today.”

A stronger collaboration with Japan and South Korea could be a significant pillar in Mr. Biden’s strategy to counter China.Credit…Samuel Corum for The New York Times

The leaders agreed to establish a three-way hotline for crisis communications, enhance ballistic missile cooperation and expand joint military exercises. They issued a written “commitment to consult” in which they resolved “to coordinate our responses to regional challenges, provocations, and threats affecting our collective interests and security.”

The commitment is not as far-reaching as NATO’s mutual security pact, which deems an attack on one member to be an attack on all, nor does it go as far as the defense treaties that the United States has separately with Japan and South Korea. But it cements the idea that the three powers share a special bond and expect to coordinate strategies where possible.

China has derided the idea of a “mini-NATO” in Asia, accusing Washington of being provocative, but aides to Mr. Biden stressed the difference from the Atlantic alliance. “It’s explicitly not a NATO for the Pacific,” said Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser.

Mr. Biden and his aides maintained that the collaboration sealed at Camp David should not be seen as aimed at China or any other country. “This summit was not about China. This was not the purpose,” the president said. “But obviously China came up.” Instead, he said, “this summit was really about our relationship with each other and defining cooperation across an entire range of issues.”

Still, no one had any doubt about the context against which the meeting was taking place. The Camp David Principles issued by the leaders did not directly mention China, but it did “reaffirm the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” a warning against aggressive military actions by Beijing.

The documents released were more explicit about nuclear-armed North Korea and the joint efforts they will take to counter its military, cyber and cryptocurrency money laundering threats.

Looming in the backdrop was Mr. Trump, whose mercurial actions and bursts of hostility while president flummoxed Japanese and South Korean leaders accustomed to more stable interactions with Washington.

At various points, he threatened to withdraw from the U.S. defense treaty with Japan and to pull all American troops out of South Korea. He abruptly canceled joint military exercises with South Korea at the request of North Korea and told interviewers after leaving office that if he had a second term he would force Seoul to pay billions of dollars to maintain the United States military presence.

The summit at Camp David was aimed at ending decades of friction between the two Asian countries.Credit…Samuel Corum for The New York Times

The Asian leaders hope that the three-way accord fashioned by Mr. Biden will help avoid wild swings in the future. The president and his guests sought to institutionalize their new collaboration by committing to annual three-way meetings in the future by whoever holds their offices.

“There’s definitely risk-hedging when it comes to political leadership,” said Shihoko Goto, acting director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.”

By deepening the cooperation below the leader level through various new mechanisms, she said, the governments may be able to maintain functional ties even if a volatile president occupies the White House.

“If a new U.S. president were to avoid going to international conferences or had no interest in engaging, the trilateral institutionalization of ties should be strong enough so that working relations between the three countries would continue,” she said. “So it won’t matter if a president didn’t show up since the working-level military or economic cooperation would be well-established.”

It is not the first time allies have questioned the United States’ commitment to its partners. Despite Mr. Biden’s promise at the NATO summit last month that Washington would “not waver” in its support for Ukraine and western allies, some leaders openly asked whether the U.S. foreign policy agenda would be upended by the outcome of the next election.

Ukraine needed to make military progress more or less “by the end of this year” because of the coming elections in the United States, President Petr Pavel of the Czech Republic warned on the first day of the summit.

Mr. Biden in Finland was also asked about whether the U.S. support of NATO would endure. “No one can guarantee the future, but this is the best bet anyone could make,” Mr. Biden said then.

At Camp David on Friday, neither Mr. Yoon nor Mr. Kishida mentioned Mr. Trump directly in their public comments, but they seemed intent on ensuring that their agreement persists beyond their tenures. Mr. Yoon said the nations were focused on building an alliance that could last for years to come. The three nations will hold a “global leadership youth summit to strengthen ties between our future generations,” he said.

Endurance was a running theme throughout the day. “We’re opening a new era,” Mr. Sullivan told reporters shortly before the meetings opened, “and we’re making sure that era has staying power.”

Ana Swanson contributed reporting from Washington.

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