By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON, Aug. 18 (Yonhap) — The agreements reached at a trilateral summit between the leaders of South Korea, Japan and the United States Friday will heighten the countries’ three-way cooperation to new levels just short of forming a formal alliance, U.S. experts said.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed to consult swiftly with one another when any of their three countries face regional challenges, provocations or threats during their historic three-way summit held at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.
Biden said the leaders have also agreed to elevate the countries’ defense collaboration by conducting “annual multi-domain military exercises” that will bring their trilateral defense cooperation to “unprecedented levels.”
Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank based in Washington, said the countries may be unable to call it a formal alliance but that it certainly sounds like one.
“I know that for political reasons they cannot talk about a trilateral alliance. But if you look at all of the new high-level trilateral meetings set up from the president down to the cabinet-level and the range of issues they cover, it almost looks like they are reproducing what they do bilaterally with each country to a trilateral format,” he told Yonhap News Agency in an email.
“They may not call it a trilateral alliance. But it sure has the aroma of one,” added Cha.
Andrew Yeo, a professor of politics from the Catholic University of America, nearly agreed, saying the U.S. may not be interested in building a new treaty alliance but a “robust partnership” that will serve the same purpose.
“The U.S. has moved away from the post-1945 alliance model of setting up mutual defense treaties to creating alliance structures that are more flexible and resilient,” said Yeo, who is also a senior fellow at the Brooking Institution, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.
“I do not think the U.S. (nor its allies) are interested in creating an Asian NATO. Rather, they want to build a robust partnership that also overlap and engage other existing bilateral, trilateral, and minilateral groupings to address threats from China and North Korea,” he added.
One of the key accomplishments of the trilateral summit was a commitment to consult trilaterally and to coordinate responses to regional challenges, provocations and threats facing any of the three countries, which U.S. officials said will further cement the countries’ three-way cooperation for years to come.
The new commitments by the leaders could well be reversed by subsequent administrations in their home countries, but it would be difficult to do so, the experts noted.
“All statements, including a legally binding international treaty can be breached. However, the “commitment to consult” reflects the political will of the three governments with the expectation that future governments will also adhere to this commitment,” Yeo said.
“Holding regularly, frequent meetings across various agencies can help institutionalize relations which can increase the chance of U.S.-Japan-Korea trilateral commitments to extend longer term,” he added.
Cha noted the scope of trilateral dialogue the countries will be engaged in.
“I think that the creation of a suite of regular trilaterals at the cabinet-level, including foreign ministers, defense, commerce, national security advisors, as well as leader-level summits on a portfolio of issues including defense exercises, missile defense, intel-sharing, economic security, supply chains, cyber, AI, etc. is a totality of commitment to trilateralism that is historic and should be able to last into future administrations,” he said.
Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, highlighted the speed with which the countries seek to implement their new commitments.
“All the actions taken at Camp David face potential reversal by subsequent administrations. That is why the three leaders are attempting to make rapid, extensive progress on enhancing trilateral cooperation and institutionalizing its implementation so that it is more difficult or less advantageous for subsequent administrations to reverse the progress,” he said.
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