[August’s] Camp David summit of the leaders of the United States, Japan, and South Korea brought welcome positive news in the world of foreign policy.
President Joe Biden hosted Yoon Suk Yeol, the president of South Korea, and Fumio Kishida, the prime minister of Japan. Perhaps surprisingly, it was the first time the leaders of the three nations had met together, and it produced both symbolic and concrete results. It sent a clear message that the allies are united in the face of China’s increased aggressiveness and North Korea’s nuclear threats.
Conducting the meeting at Camp David, with its history of important diplomacy, highlighted the event’s significance. The presidential retreat in Maryland, a world apart from the pomp of Washington, D.C., is where Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met to discuss the progress of World War II and where Jimmy Carter hosted the leaders of Israel and Egypt to hammer out the Camp David Accords.
The one-day meeting concluded with announcements of security agreements. The leaders pledged to have annual cabinet-level meetings and to work together on issues involving global supply chains and critical technologies. They made a “commitment to consult” on security threats and established a new crisis hotline while stressing that the agreement is not a NATO-style mutual-defense treaty.
Biden campaigned on a promise to restore relationships with allies, a reversal from Donald Trump, who often berated America’s friends while seeking splashy but ultimately unproductive meetings with adversaries. The summit with Yoon and Kishida showed the Biden foreign-policy approach at its best.
You might think maintaining positive relationships with allies would be the easiest part of foreign policy. Often, it’s not. South Korea and Japan, neighbors separated by the Sea of Japan and the Korean Strait, are prosperous democracies with advanced industrial economies, but they have a contentious history.
The Korean Peninsula was a Japanese colony from 1910-1945, a time when Korean men were drafted into the Japan’s military or forced to work in factories and many Korean women were made to serve as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers. In recent decades, Japan apologized and paid reparations, but some Koreans haven’t forgiven. There also have been tensions over trade and territorial disagreements.
Yoon and Kishida, who both took office in the past two years, have taken steps to repair the relationship, encouraged by the Biden administration. Japan and South Korea have somewhat different national-security priorities, but both have been alarmed by China’s efforts to expand its influence and by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s saber-rattling. Biden insisted the summit was “not about China,” but China was certainly one factor that made strengthening the alliance possible and necessary.
Japan and South Korea have also objected to some U.S. policies, especially concerning trade, where Biden’s “Made in America” emphasis can come at the expense of Asian manufacturing. The president’s climate legislation provided tax credits for electric vehicles built in the U.S. but not for imports. Subsidies for American semiconductor plants, aimed at countering Chinese dominance in the industry, could impact South Korea, which depends on trade with China. Meanwhile, elevating the U.S. alliance with Japan and South Korea risks worsening our already fraught relationship with China.
Effective foreign policy is a balancing act that requires careful engagement with friends and foes and deliberate consideration of risks and rewards. That said, there are few drawbacks to strengthening America’s ties with two of its most important allies. The Camp David meeting can be expected to improve security in East Asia while serving U.S. national interests.
Lee Hamilton, 92, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana.