CAMP DAVID, Maryland (Reuters) – President Joe Biden and the leaders of South Korea and Japan agreed at Camp David on Friday to deepen military and economic ties, and made their strongest condemnation yet of “dangerous and aggressive behavior” by China in the South China Sea.
The Biden administration held the summit with the leaders of the main U.S. allies in Asia, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in a bid to project unity in the face of China’s rise and nuclear threats from North Korea.
According to the joint summit statement, the three countries committed to consult promptly with each other during crises and to coordinate responses to regional challenges, provocations and threats affecting common interests.
They also agreed to hold trilateral military training exercises annually and to share real-time information on North Korean missile launches by the end of 2023. The countries promised to hold trilateral summits annually.
But it was the language on China that stood out as stronger than expected, and which is likely to provoke a response from Beijing, which is a vital trading partner for both Korea and Japan.
“Regarding the dangerous and aggressive behavior supporting unlawful maritime claims that we have recently witnessed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the South China Sea, we strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the waters of the Indo-Pacific,” the statement said.
The commitments at Biden’s first Camp David summit for foreign leaders represent a significant move for Seoul and Tokyo, which have a long history of mutual acrimony and distrust.
Kishida and Yoon, in jackets with no ties, walked side-by-side to shake hands with Biden before heading indoors.
“Our countries are stronger and the world would be safer as we stand together,” Biden said, praising the visiting leaders for their “political courage” in coming together.
Yoon cited former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt as saying that freedom was not given but something that needed to be fought for and added: “Our three countries should be firmly united so that our freedom is not threatened or damaged.”
Kishida said the gathering showed the three countries were “making … (a) new history as of today.”
With Washington’s encouragement, Tokyo and Seoul are navigating their way past disputes dating to Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean Peninsula.
Those disputes are among the reasons the leaders would not now consider a mutual-defense pact along the lines of what the United States has separately with both South Korea and Japan – who are not themselves formal allies – according to U.S. officials who declined to be identified while previewing the summit.
“What we have seen over the last couple of months is a breathtaking kind of diplomacy, that has been led by courageous leaders in both Japan and South Korea,” said Kurt Campbell, Biden’s coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs.
“They have sometimes gone against the advice of their own counselors and staff and taken steps that elevate the Japan-South Korea relationship into a new plane,” Campbell said.
CHINA VIEWS SUMMIT WARILY
Beijing has warned that U.S. efforts to strengthen ties with South Korea and Japan could “increase tension and confrontation in the region.”
While South Korea, Japan and the United States want to avoid provoking Beijing, China believes Washington is trying to isolate it diplomatically and encircle it militarily.
Responding to a question about charges leveled by China, Biden’s National Security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters the aim was “explicitly not a NATO for the Pacific” and also said a trilateral alliance had not been set as an explicit goal.
“We have not set an endpoint of a formal trilateral alliance,” Sullivan said, while adding that the commitment to consult was “a very significant step because it means that the three countries recognize their common interest in having a coherent and coordinated response to any security contingency.”
Tensions in the South China Sea have flared between U.S. ally the Philippines and China over a grounded warship that serves as a Philippine military outpost in the strategic waterway, a major global trade route.
On Friday, North Korea said its military had scrambled jets after a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft intruded into its economic zone off its east coast, state news agency KCNA reported on Friday.
The White House, conscious of upcoming elections, wants to make the progress between South Korea and Japan hard to reverse by institutionalizing routine cooperation on military exercises, missile defense, the economy, and scientific and technological research.
Biden, an 80-year-old Democrat seeking another four-year term in the 2024 presidential election, faces a likely opponent in Republican former President Donald Trump, who has voiced skepticism about whether Washington benefits from its traditional military and economic alliances.
South Korea has legislative elections next year and Japan must hold one before October 2025, and what analysts see as a still fragile rapprochement between the two nations remains controversial among the countries’ voters.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt at Camp David and David Brunnstrom and Susan Heavey in Washington; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Editing by Don Durfee, Grant McCool and Alistair Bell)
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