US, Japan and South Korea deepen security ties to deter China

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The US, Japan and South Korea are to create a leader-level hotline and hold annual military exercises as part of a historic trilateral agreement that will help Washington and its Asian allies boost deterrence against North Korea and China.

President Joe Biden will announce the move with Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol at Camp David on Friday, according to Kurt Campbell, the top White House official for the Indo-Pacific region.

“We’re going to invest in technology to have a three-way hotline for the leaders and others inside their governments to communicate,” Campbell said in a preview of the summit at the Brookings Institution.

The trilateral summit represents a significant victory for Washington, which for years has been urging Tokyo and Seoul to move beyond a longstanding dispute over Japan’s wartime behaviour to enable Washington to work more closely with its two allies.

The US has mutual defence treaties with Japan and South Korea. But it has been frustrated over the years at how longstanding tensions between Tokyo and Seoul — who are not allies — have made serious trilateral security co-operation almost impossible.

The leaders will unveil a broad set of “Camp David principles” as well as a document laying out co-operation on security. In addition to the hotline and annual military exercises, they will agree to hold an annual summit and create a mechanism to share intelligence.

US ambassador to Tokyo Rahm Emanuel said the summit highlighted how the Biden administration viewed alliances as “the coin of the realm”. He said it would send a strong message to China, which was trying to intimidate other countries across the Indo-Pacific region.

“It doubles down on the fact that we’ve created something that . . . China was hoping would never happen,” Emanuel said at Brookings.

In what they see as the latest example of Chinese aggression, Washington and Manila have accused Beijing of illegally targeting Philippine supply ships in the South China Sea with water cannons. Campbell did not say if the three leaders would call out China over the action.

The trilateral summit comes as the Biden administration implements measures to create a latticed security architecture across the Indo-Pacific. The efforts range from the Australian-British-American Aukus security pact to help Canberra procure nuclear-propelled submarines and a commitment to sell Tomahawk cruise missiles to Japan, to a recent agreement that provides the US military with access to new bases in the Philippines.

Campbell said Kishida and Yoon had engaged in “breathtaking” diplomacy, sometimes against the advice of their aides, that had elevated the Japan-South Korea relationship to “a new plane”.

Mira Rapp-Hooper, the top White House east-Asia official, noted that the Camp David agreement would come just days after Yoon said on the August 15 anniversary of South Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule that the neighbours were now “partners”.

Rapp-Hooper said Yoon gave a “remarkable” speech on a day that traditionally has resurrected historical wounds. “Quite to the contrary, this National Liberation Day speech was replete with references to the fact that Korea and Japan were fundamental partners, that our security was inextricably linked, and that we had to stand together.”

The Financial Times has previously reported that Campbell was pushing Tokyo and Seoul to agree to language in the statement saying each country would agree to consult the others if it came under attack.

Asked if the Camp David meeting could be the first step towards a collective security agreement, Campbell said the countries were taking “quite substantial steps” to address a common threat, but urged caution.

“I think we can imagine a future with more ambition. But . . . the key is not to get too far over your skis,” he added.

“China has done a magnificent job bringing Japan and South Korea closer together,” said Dennis Wilder, a former top CIA China expert now at Georgetown University. “You couldn’t write a movie script as good as this.”

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