29.11.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Birth of a “New Iron Triangle”: Analysis of the Main Summit Documents

In this article, we will talk in more detail about the key documents institutionalized by the alliance.

Following the summit, two conceptual documents were adopted, called the “Camp David Principles” and the “Spirit of Camp David.” They overlap in many ways, with the first containing guidelines for trilateral cooperation and the second laying out their detailed vision for trilateral cooperation and a plan for its implementation. At their core, such documents aim to achieve consensus on policy issues and develop a single course so that “Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States are united in their goals and actions, creating their common potential.”

The Camp David Principles state that “the Indo-Pacific region is stronger when Japan, the Republic of Korea and the United States stand as one,” and the Spirit of Camp David emphasizes that “the US President thanked President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida for their courageous leadership in transforming relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea. Thanks to renewed bonds of friendship and the strong US-Japan and US-ROK alliances, all of our bilateral relationships are now stronger than ever.”

Therefore, we will analyze these two documents not sequentially, but in parallel, using the words “Principles” and “Spirit” below to indicate the source of the quote.

Ideological basis. The Principles state that the partnership between the three countries is “based on shared values, mutual respect, and a unified commitment to advance the prosperity of our three countries, the region, and the globe.” The Spirit adds that the new era of trilateral partnership is taking place at a “turning point in history, when geopolitical competition, the climate crisis, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, and nuclear provocations are testing us. This is a moment that requires unity and coordinated action from true partners, and it is a moment we intend to meet together.” The goal of the alliance is “to promote peace and stability throughout the region,” although when considering the specifics, the saying “If you want peace, prepare for war” comes to mind.

However, in reality, “stability” directly means a situation favourable to Washington. More precisely, as the Principles indicate, “a free and open Indo-Pacific region based on a respect for international law, shared norms, and common values. We strongly oppose any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force or coercion.”

Of course, all this policy is carried out under the pretext of “compliance with the principles of the UN Charter, especially those relating to sovereignty, territorial integrity, the peaceful settlement of disputes and the use of force.” However, talk about the rule of law is essentially aimed at preserving the international world-order model in which the United States remains the world hegemon. Because the new image of the future emerging against the backdrop of global turbulence makes American hegemony at least less significant due to the increase in the number of nuclear countries. And the orientation of these countries is not so important because their nuclear umbrella instead of the American one will push them towards a more independent policy. This is why the Principles affirm that “achieving a world without nuclear weapons is a common goal for the international community, and we continue to make every effort to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again.”

General security issues. The Spirit describes a system of interaction, consultation and information exchange aimed at coordinating and responding to common threats. “We will hold trilateral meetings between our leaders, foreign ministers, defence ministers, and national security advisors at least annually, complementing existing trilateral meetings between our respective foreign and defence ministries. We will also hold the first trilateral meeting between our finance ministers as well as launch a new commerce and industry ministers track that will meet annually. We will also launch an annual trilateral Indo-Pacific dialogue to coordinate the implementation of our Indo-Pacific approaches and to continually identify new areas for common action. Recognizing the increased threat posed by foreign information manipulation and misuse of surveillance technology, we will also discuss ways to coordinate our efforts to counter disinformation. We welcome the trilateral development policy dialogue planned in October to advance concrete discussions for deepening development policy coordination. We are resolute in our determination to uphold regional security, strengthen Indo-Pacific engagement, and promote common prosperity.”

This point is emphasized by a separate, third and shortest document, “S. Korea-US-Japan Commitment to Consult.” It is noted that consultations will be held “to coordinate our responses to regional challenges, provocations and threats affecting our collective interests and security.” The document itself does not specify these challenges and threats, but later the ROK Presidential Spokesman cited examples such as trade disputes, the North Korean missile threat, a serious provocation at sea, or any threat in the region or beyond. Moreover, if one country decides not to share information because a particular threat does not pose a threat to the country itself, it will have no obligation to do so.

The American side gave a slightly different explanation: it is important that the “regional emergency or threat” is perceived as a challenge by all three parties.

North Korea. Formally, the Principles declare a commitment to “dialogue with the DPRK with no preconditions,” but then everything becomes clear: “We support a unified Korean Peninsula that is free and at peace.” In other words, there is NO room for North Korea in this world.

This also includes the complete denuclearization of the North in accordance with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. At the same time, the Spirit adds that in fact, denuclearization is understood as “denuclearization according to Bolton,” which, recall, provided for the elimination of not only the nuclear, but also the North’s missile program.

Anti-North Korean activity is positioned in several directions. First of all, this is increasing combat readiness through regular exercises and creating an effective missile defence system. It was announced that the three countries would regularly “conduct annual, named, multi-domain trilateral exercises,” and that back in mid-August, the three countries “tested a maritime missile defence warning system to share missile attack warning data in real-time to demonstrate our ability to more effectively deter and respond to North Korean nuclear and missile threats.” It is planned to put this system into operation by the end of 2023.

Next, the parties intend to resolve “human rights and humanitarian issues, including the immediate resolution of problems related to abducted, detained and unrepatriated prisoners of war.” On the one hand, this is a reference to the “abducted Japanese nationals” whom public opinion considers alive, and on the other hand, to the people who went to the North during the Korean War. Until about the 2000s, they were perceived as communist proxies who voluntarily left their homes and their families were denied their rights. However, under the rule of Lee Myung-bak, the concept changed: at that time, a person could say that “his grandfather was not a communist proxy, but a communist victim and he was taken into slavery in North Korea.” Thus, more than 80 thousand “kidnapped” or “forcibly detained” South Korean nationals appeared.

They made a separate announcement regarding “the creation of a new trilateral working group to promote our cooperation, including with the international community, in combating North Korean cyber threats and blocking sanctions evasion through cyber attacks.”

Of course, support was expressed for Yoon Suk Yeol’s “bold initiative”, although the concept of complete disarmament in exchange for economic assistance was morally outdated even during the reign of Lee Myung-bak, when Kim Tae-hyo put it forward for the first time. And South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol himself, speaking at a cabinet meeting on 21 August, directly stated that “the more serious the threats of provocations from North Korea, the stronger the trilateral security cooperation will be.”

Containing China. The Principles reaffirm “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of security and prosperity in the international community” and note that “there is no change in our basic positions on Taiwan, we call for a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” This passage can be interpreted in two ways. Either as a formal recognition of the PRC and the fact that contacts with Taiwan are unofficial, or the actual US position on this issue.

Moreover, if in the Principles China is not mentioned by name, in the Spirit, it is called by name and the claims are more detailed. Although they mainly concern the PRC’s activities in the South China Sea: “dangerous and aggressive behaviour supporting unlawful maritime claims”, “militarization of reclaimed features; dangerous use of coast guard and maritime militia vessels; and other coercive activities” plus a particular concern about “illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.”

Russia. It is practically not mentioned in the text except in the context of a special military operation. The Spirit mentions aid to Ukraine at the end of the document using rather general language. “We reaffirm our commitment to stand with Ukraine against Russia’s unprovoked and brutal war of aggression that has shaken the foundation of the international order. We commit to continue providing assistance to Ukraine, imposing coordinated, robust sanctions on Russia, and accelerating the reduction of dependency on Russian energy. We believe the lasting lesson from this catastrophic war of aggression must be the international community’s abiding will to uphold the principles of territorial integrity, sovereignty, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. We reaffirm our view that when these foundational principles are rejected anywhere, they represent a threat to our region. We are unified in our intent to ensure that no such egregious acts are ever perpetrated again.”

Additionally, in a joint statement following the summit, Biden mentioned countering North Korean threats such as cryptocurrency money laundering or “potential arms transfers in support of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine.”

It can be noted that, although the draft final documents were most likely written by the American side, the position of Seoul, which is trying to manoeuvre in the Russian and Chinese directions through cooperation in the North Korean direction, has materialized in a certain way. China is much less defamed than in statements that were previously made without the participation of South Korea. The level of condemnation of Russia is not accompanied by fundamentally new actions, especially from the point of view of Seoul. It can be said that Yoon Suk Yeol once again defended South Korea’s position not to directly supply weapons, especially weapons and ammunition.

Southeast Asia and Oceania. In this regard, the Principles include “unwavering support for ASEAN centrality and unity” and cooperation with the Pacific Island countries and the Pacific Islands Forum as the region’s leading institution. The purpose of this cooperation is to “ensure that they are mutually reinforcing and maximally beneficial to our valued partners, including through capacity building efforts in cybersecurity and financial integrity and our new trilateral maritime security cooperation framework.”

Note that, within the framework of global claims, this section of the Principles comes before the North Korean one.

Economy. Here, the Principles again focus on financial stability and “orderly and well-functioning financial markets,” which provide a status quo beneficial to Washington not in the political, but in the economic sphere.

Particular attention in the economic bloc is paid to issues of technological security, primarily means of eliminating disruptions in global supply chains, especially in the field of semiconductors and batteries, which means ensuring stability in the context of the collapse of the single economic space and the desire to reduce export dependence on China, which could use it as leverage.

The fight for all that is good against all that is bad. As is known from the spring summit between Yoon and Biden, this topic is described very thoroughly in the documents. The documents mention cooperation in the field of high technology, the fight against climate change, the women’s issue, the protection of human rights in general, green energy, and much more. The parties “committed to explore delivering new World Bank Group concessional resources and headroom to fight poverty by addressing global challenges in line with its forthcoming concessional framework and enhancing resources for the poorest countries, including crisis response.”

Speaking about various initiatives in this area, it can be noted that many of them were previously worked out as bilateral initiatives, announced during the autumn visit of Yoon Suk Yeol to the United States. For example, expanding tripartite joint research and development and personnel exchanges, especially in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sectors, open radio access network (RAN) cooperation, and dialogue on space security cooperation, especially regarding threats in the space domain.

It is interesting to compare the summit outcome with the guesses and assumptions of some media. Thus, Japanese media reported that Joe Biden and Fumio Kishida could announce cooperation in a joint project to develop an interceptor missile capable of shooting down hypersonic missiles from Russia, China and the DPRK.

To what extent can these statements be perceived as the creation of a regional NATO analogue? It seemed unlikely that before the summit the parties would conclude a collective security agreement that would oblige the parties to protect each other, and after the summit, a US administration official told reporters that the Principles and Spirit “is not a formal commitment of the alliance or a collective defence commitment that is canceled by Security Treaty of the Early Cold War.”

Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), believes that they cannot talk about a trilateral alliance for political reasons, but “they seem to be reproducing what they do bilaterally with each country to a trilateral format.”

Andrew Yeo, a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, points out that after 1945, “the United States moved away from the mutual defence treaty model toward more flexible and resilient structures.” New times, new formats.

Lee Seong-hyon, a senior fellow at the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations, writes that “the trilateral meeting marks a fundamental change in East Asia’s security architecture.” Other experts also believe that “in the future, cooperation between the three countries will function as a strong alliance to promote peace and prosperity both within the region and beyond, along with initiatives such as AUKUS (a trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Quad (quadrilateral security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States).”

The author believes that the system of obligations that is spelt out in NATO documents does not yet exist in the Far East. The consultation obligation states that the parties “remain free to take all appropriate actions to protect their security or sovereignty interests.” However, it also notes that this document “does not cancel or otherwise impair the obligations arising from the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty and the U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty.”

This is due to the fact that the actions of the parties in the event of an attack by another country are prescribed in other documents. In relation to the ROK and the United States, for example, this is the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1953. And, therefore, there is no need to repeat this wording. On the other hand, the above-mentioned phrase that Seoul and Washington will act as one can be perceived as the first step in the institutionalization of a regional bloc.

To summarize, it is clear that specific plans relate to security cooperation directed against the DPRK and partially duplicate bilateral documents. There were no fundamentally new things noted, but the “S. Korea-US-Japan Commitment to Consult” brought the partnership to a new level. This is the next step after the Washington Declaration and the “new iron triangle” is steadily becoming more clearly defined.

However, the final documents caused a mixed reaction not only in South Korea, but also among Western experts. We will talk about this in a separate article, and here the author only draws attention to the fact that such a step towards the new reality of military blocs will most likely cause counteractions on the other side, at least within the framework of the “security dilemma.” What was previously accepted within the framework of the “Northern Triangle” becomes the basis for very real documents of the “Southern Triangle”.

Another step has been taken towards a dangerous line, although it seems to the author that now the movement is taking place not so much towards the line as along the line. We hope that, despite all such preparations, this does not transform into an active conflict.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading Researcher at the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of China and Contemporary Asia, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the internet journal “New Eastern Outlook”.

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