Historic US-Japan-South Korea Summit Marks a Diplomatic Coup for Biden, but the Future of Détente Remains Uncertain

The United States, Japan, and South Korea have made history with the first-ever stand-alone meeting between their leaders at the Camp David presidential retreat. This unprecedented summit signifies an important diplomatic achievement for US President Joe Biden, but questions remain about the long-term sustainability of this détente. The meeting, driven by shared concerns over an increasingly assertive China and regional security threats, aims to solidify and strengthen the trilateral relationship between the three countries. However, underlying historical grievances, domestic political challenges, and economic considerations could pose significant obstacles to maintaining this newfound alliance.

The wounds between South Korea and Japan are deep and rooted in historical animosities, particularly related to Japan’s colonization of Korea during World War Two. The issue of “comfort women,” who were abducted and used as sex slaves by the Japanese army, remains a source of pain for many South Koreans. Although Japan has argued that it has atoned for its historical sins, many South Koreans believe that the apologies offered have been insufficient. Previous attempts at détente have proven fragile, with even minor incidents triggering diplomatic disputes and escalating tensions.

Despite these challenges, the shared concerns of China’s assertiveness in Asia and North Korea’s weapons testing have provided the impetus for the recent progress in US-Japan-South Korea relations. All three countries recognize the need for a united front in the face of these security challenges. To that end, they have agreed to oppose China’s “dangerous and aggressive behavior” in the East and South China Seas, hold joint military exercises, and share real-time data on North Korea. The goal is to establish a long-term relationship that transcends individual presidential terms and addresses a range of security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.

However, sustaining this détente will require proactive implementation of the joint vision beyond the current leadership. A change of leadership, with the election of an ultra-leftist South Korean president or an ultra-right-wing Japanese leader, could jeopardize the progress made so far. Deep-rooted tensions and historical animosities do not disappear overnight, and continued diplomatic spats are likely to arise. Furthermore, low approval ratings for the current Japanese and South Korean leaders may limit their ability to allocate significant diplomatic capital to resolving Korea-Japan relations.

Another challenge lies in the potential reluctance of Japan and South Korea to criticize China overtly. Both countries rely on China as a key trading partner, and economic measures might be harder to secure than agreements on national security. The looming shadow of US-China tensions and potential economic restrictions has already come at a cost to South Korea and Japan. Any criticism of China in public remarks following the summit could invite backlash and further strain relations.

China, on its part, views the US-led summit as a containment strategy and has labeled it a “mini-NATO.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has explicitly urged South Korea and Japan to work with Beijing to revitalize East Asia. China sees the summit as another attempt by the US to limit its influence in the region, despite the White House’s denial of such intentions. Managing China’s response and potential retaliatory actions will require delicate diplomacy and strategic maneuvering.

In conclusion, while the US-Japan-South Korea summit is a significant diplomatic achievement for President Biden, the road to lasting détente remains precarious and uncertain. Historical grievances, domestic politics, economic considerations, and China’s response all pose challenges to the sustainability of this newfound alliance. The three countries must actively work towards implementing their joint vision, overcome deep-rooted animosities, and navigate the complex dynamics of the region to ensure long-term stability and security in the Indo-Pacific.