Home / OPINION / Analysis / The Promise of Camp David: Trilateral Summit Is a Watershed for Asian Security

The Promise of Camp David: Trilateral Summit Is a Watershed for Asian Security

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Patrick Cronin

While threats posed by North Korea remain the central adhesive for concerted action by South Korea, the United States, and Japan, the agenda for trilateral cooperation is increasingly moving beyond defense to build order and promote prosperity.

Camp David, the presidential redoubt 60 miles north of the White House, is a venue for making history. Eighty years ago, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill huddled to coordinate a grand strategy during World War II. Forty-five years ago, Jimmy Carter assembled Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin to reach a new Middle East peace accord. Twenty years ago, George W. Bush welcomed “my friend” Vladimir Putin to probe the intentions of the Russian leader. While not consistently successful, retreats at Camp David are often fateful tête-à-têtes among world leaders.

The Promise of Camp David

 The gathering of American, South Korean, and Japanese heads of government in the wooded hills of Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Park on August 18 is a pivotal moment to shape international relations “across the Indo-Pacific and beyond.”

Camp David promises to launch an annual process for institutionalizing top-level trilateral coordination of salient defense, economic, and diplomatic policies.

Camp David is purpose-built for ushering in a new level of U.S.-South Korea-Japan cooperation. Previous trilateral talks—including three meetings between Presidents Joe Biden and Yoon Suk-yeol and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in the past fifteen months—have occurred on the margins of NATO, ASEAN East Asia Summit, and G7 multilateral meetings. This time, the trilateral summit is the main event.

The summit comes at a moment of considerable gravity. The three leaders converge amid fraught relations with China and Russia and heightened global concerns about nuclear deterrence, emerging technology, and climate change.

The three governments have been creating momentum for success. The Camp David gathering builds on numerous high-level trilateral meetings among foreign, defense, security, and economic policymakers.

 Although it is easy to preemptively declare the Camp David summit a watershed in Asian security, the complexity of the agenda mirrors our disruptive era.

 Building off the North Korea Threat

At least the foundation for trilateral cooperation is unbending. North Korea’s threats remain the glue for trilateral action. Hard-wiring and exercising defenses to detect, deter, and defeat missile, undersea, drone, and other offensive military systems is essential for bolstering regional defense. Likewise, tightening economic penalties and sanctions enforcement on Pyongyang for defying United Nations Security Council resolutions is crucial for shoring up the rules-based international order.

Four related critical defense challenges are sure to be discussed at Camp David. Two are relatively simple, and two require great delicacy because they infringe on core national sensitivities.

The first is to name and shame North Korea for trying to become the arsenal of dictators.

The three leaders should pledge to monitor and expose North Korea for exporting arms to help Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, and they should also vow to impose costs on all those conspiring to prosecute an offensive war.

The second challenge is to do more to buttress deterrence by communicating to all potential aggressors that Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo will not remain idle in the face of unilateral changes to the status quo through force or coercion. Preventing regional flashpoints from spilling over into broader conflict is a natural part of keeping peace and stability, whether on the Korean peninsula, across the Taiwan Strait, or in the South China Sea.

For example, take the matter of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Beijing deliberately drives up tensions by threatening to change the status quo through the threat or use of force. But Presidents Biden and Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida are squarely behind maintaining the status quo and squarely opposed to unilateral changes through military arms. Here they can take inspiration from former Japanese prime minister Taro Aso’s recent speech in Taipei, recounting how British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s “small mistake” of not sending a clear signal to Argentina contributed to the outbreak of the Falklands War in 1982.

Nuclear deterrence and cyber security are also worthy of making the summit agenda. How to join up national defense modernization plans and bilateral extended deterrence talks to reassure allies and dissuade potential adversaries from using force constitutes a third problem that needs further exploration in the solitude of Camp David. A trilateral extended deterrence conversation is vital, regardless of whether it is granted a formal name or codified with a new acronym.

Finally, the unrelenting efforts of potential adversaries to hack into classified national security networks demand concerted trilateral cooperation. Critical-system sabotage risks constitute a grave threat to regional and global peace. Yet recent revelations about hacking into U.S. networks in Guam or Japanese security systems underscore the urgency of this challenge. Failing to demonstrate an ability to protect critical infrastructure can catalyze miscalculation. Trilateral coordination to safeguard essential infrastructure can occur while Japan and South Korea work through other mechanisms, such as NATO’s partnership program.

Leveraging Security Cooperation for Rule-Setting and Order-Building

Even with this ambitious agenda for trilateral security collaboration, the true potential for cooperation among the three countries lies in fashioning a free, open, and forward-looking Indo-Pacific order.

Chinese information warriors will seize on issues such as Taiwan and portray the trilateral summit as a “small clique” governed by a “Cold War mindset” attempting to thwart China’s peaceful rise and regional community-building. But Chinese officials are mistaken if they think trilateral cooperation is all about them. They are also obscuring the ultimately positive agenda driving the three democracies forward.

The Washington-Seoul-Tokyo collaboration aims to demonstrate a shared commitment to a peaceful regional and global rules-based community. Defense is part of the agenda, but that element of cooperation centers on managing North Korea’s missile, undersea, drone, and other military threats. All three countries have their interests, but increasingly they see benefits in forging a united front to shape the order of the system.

Shared values and interests can drive the three countries to achieve new ambitions for setting new standards for trade and development, preserving supply chain resilience and protecting critical infrastructure, harnessing technology for combating climate change, and averting the unintended consequences of emerging technologies.

Multilateral arrangements are only as strong as the weakest link. When South Korea and Japan are at daggers’ drawn, American calls for trilateral action will fall flat. Conversely, when leaders are committed to a forward-looking South Korea-Japan partnership, improving bilateral ties empower regional institution building. This moment may not last, making it imperative for the leaders to create a spirit of Camp David. Beginning by declaring the summit an inaugural event, the leaders can advance the scaffolding of a durable, influential new institution centered on these three leading democracies.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Asia-Pacific Security Chair at the Hudson Institute and Scholar in Residence at Carnegie Mellon University.