Dr. Sheila Smith on the Trilateral Leaders’ Summit at Camp David

Sheila A. Smith is a John E. Merow senior fellow for Asia-Pacific studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). An expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy, she is the author of Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power, Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China, and Japan's New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance. She is also the author of the CFR interactive guide Constitutional Change in Japan. Smith is a regular contributor to the CFR blog Asia Unbound and a frequent contributor to major media outlets in the United States and Asia. Smith joined CFR from the East-West Center in 2007, where she directed a multinational research team in a cross-national study of the domestic politics of the U.S. military presence in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. She was a visiting scholar at Keio University in 2007-08, where she researched Japan’s foreign policy towards China, supported by the Abe Fellowship. Smith has been a visiting researcher at two leading Japanese foreign and security policy think tanks, the Japan Institute of International Affairs and the Research Institute for Peace and Security, and at the University of Tokyo and the University of the Ryukyus. Smith is chair of the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission (JUSFC) and the U.S. advisors to the U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON), a binational advisory panel of government officials and private-sector members. She teaches as an adjunct professor at the Asian studies department of Georgetown University and serves on the board of its Journal of Asian Affairs. She also serves on the advisory committee for the U.S.-Japan Network for the Future program of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation. Smith earned her MA and PhD from the political science department at Columbia University.
Caroline Kim '24 interviewed Dr. Sheila A. Smith on October 9, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Sheila A. Smith.

President Biden hosted a summit in late August 2023 at Camp David with Presidents Yoon of South Korea and President Kishida Japan. Why was this trilateral summit considered historic?

It might be useful to put this in the context of the Biden administration's approach to the trilateral relationship. In the previous Trump administration, there wasn't a lot of attention paid to the trilateral. During that time, the Japan-ROK relationship began to deteriorate in ways that it hadn't in the past. There has long been tension between Korea and Japan over historical legacy issues such as the so-called comfort women issue and also more recently, the forced labor issue. There has also been attention on the military side as well, because the South Koreans are not very happy about the Japanese Self Defense Forces coming near their territory, including Dokdo, or Takeshima as the Japanese call it. There’s a host of issues where sensitivities run high in the bilateral relationship. As the Trump administration was focused on other things, that relationship began to get more and more tense under President Moon and former Prime Minister Abe. The United States didn't see itself as having a role in trying to dampen the tensions or try to facilitate a better outcome in specific issues. 

That was the backdrop when President Biden came into office. Of course, he had had experience in managing the trilateral relationship when he was Vice President under President Obama. This was an area he felt quite strongly about. His advisors also felt strongly that Japan and South Korea ought to work very hard at rebuilding trust and restoring confidence in the relationship. North Korea is also a factor. North Korea is increasingly testing missiles and improving its technological capability for an intercontinental ballistic missile that ultimately can reach the United States. In the last three or four years, a lot of testing has been done, causing a real security dilemma. The Biden administration came in and had a strong focus on our alliances and on the Indo-Pacific. The administration had national security adviser meetings, Joint Chief of Staff meetings, head of intelligence agency meetings, and gradually and quietly worked to rebuild confidence. In the midst of that, President Yoon was elected, and he has been forthright in improving relations with Japan. There are a couple of areas that are critical. One is the restoration of trust and confidence in the trilateral security collaboration, but another strong political effort on the part of President Moon of South Korea to rebuild the bilateral Japan-Korea relationship. The Camp David Summit is the culmination and success of those efforts.

Given decades of tense relations between Japan and South Korea, how were these leaders able to overcome their difficult history to hold this summit with President Biden? How did this summit play with domestic audiences in South Korea and Japan?

I give President Yoon a lot of the credit for the work that he and his advisers have done on the Japan relationship. This was a relationship that was in tatters when he came into office. Prime Minister Kishida, of course, also deserves credit. Kishida is a fairly moderate and calm leader. He doesn't evoke a lot of tension, nor does he advocate for confrontation. He had just the right personality to be on the receiving end of President Yoon's overtures. He felt that Japan had to make sure that this was a sustainable recovery of their bilateral relationship. When President Yoon went to Tokyo, he was welcomed by the Prime Minister who asked him to join the G7 as a special partner. They went together to pay their respects to the Korean victims of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, something that no Japanese Prime Minister has done before. Prime Minister Kishida also made his trip to Seoul, making it possible for President Yoon to visit Hiroshima. Both leaders were aware of the domestic political scrutiny of what it was they were doing. And of course, in South Korea, there have been a number of opinion polls. Sometimes, they are more skeptical of overtures towards Japan than President Yoon would like. However, there is a growing sense among South Koreans that given the security climate in the region and South Korea's long-term interests, both regionally and globally, the partnership with Japan is important.

In Japan, the skepticism is really about whether they can trust another leader of South Korea not only to make promises or commitments but also to implement them. I think you see on the Japanese side an appreciation for the political risk that President Yoon was willing to run to try to improve the relationship. The public came along with it to a certain degree. That being said, there are sensitivities on both sides. It will require a certain amount of consistency and progress to demonstrate to both publics that the choices of their leaders were in the interests of both countries.

At the summit, the leaders announced their government's commitment to consult with each other in order to coordinate their responses to regional challenges that affect collective security. How robust are their commitments to hold future summits to coordinate responses to cyberattacks and plan joint military exercises?

Let me start by sharing the domestic and the regional context. While attending the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh in November 2022, Biden, Yoon, and Kishida made a joint statement that was very focused not only on peninsular security or  Northeast Asia, but rather on challenges affecting the whole Indo-Pacific, such as maritime security, resilient supply chains, and future use of information technologies. It is quite a broad agenda that others in the region have also outlined. This agenda considered the changing balance of power in the Indo Pacific. 

Regarding consultations, I hope that they want to have a summit every year, with meetings of national security advisors, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and military leaders. They want to regularize this consultative framework within the trilateral. Specific to the issues, collective security is inherent in U.S. alliances with both South Korea and Japan. We do not have a trilateral alliance or treaty that commits all three actors to act in each other's defenses, and that's an important piece of the puzzle. Nonetheless, both Japan and South Korea agree that the most imminent challenge to their national security is coming from North Korea. Kim Jong Un has demonstrated missile capability as mentioned before. He's also acquired a significant amount of fissile material needed to create nuclear weapons or warheads that he might put on these missiles. And very recently, Vladimir Putin has assured Kim Jong Un that he would be willing to share ICBM technology so as to break through that last frontier of missile technology. 

There are also cyber threats, an area in which North Korea is a superpower. The DPRK is very active in cyber crime and other kinds of cyber activity. The Camp David Summit made it very clear that each country would see a threat against the others as a threat against oneself, stopping just short of NATO’s Article 5 commitment, which promises the United States will come to the aid of the other country in the Alliance if attacked. Japan is ready to be part of that response, but it is not yet as crystal clear as an Article 5 commitment. Nonetheless, cyber is the focal point. These militaries have worked on sharing missile detection technologies, real time tracking of missiles launched, and also tracking of potential responses. The cyber piece we'll see blossoms somewhat in the months and years to come.

How is this summit viewed in Beijing? Does this summit exacerbate current tensions in the U.S.-China relationship?

There are tensions in the US-China relationship and the Japan-China relationship. The tensions are perhaps slightly weaker in the Korea-China relationship. Beijing was very clear from the beginning, that it saw this trilateral summit as Cold War thinking, militarizing relationships that were not healthy. Beijing sought to make it clear to both Seoul and Tokyo it didn't appreciate this kind of ganging up. China has been working in a sustained way in South Korean domestic politics to align itself with the opposition parties. These parties criticize President Yoon for not seeing things more clearly the way China sees the relationships with both the United States and Japan. There's also an election coming up for the National Assembly next April. China has a clear idea of which side of South Korean politics it prefers to win that election. For Japan, China has less latitude at the moment. Japanese public opinion is really quite skeptical for the last decade of the Communist Party leadership in Beijing. In the past, the Chinese government was quite effective in mobilizing criticism of the conservatives, but that's not a very effective approach today in Japan because public opinion has shifted. There is more hardline politics in the conservative party against China in Japan, and so there's less there's a danger of China getting overly intrusive in Japanese politics. That being said, Chinese criticism of the trilateral relationship will continue, especially if and when it impinges on Chinese interests. However, there is a diplomatic effort underway by the South Korean government to also restart a trilateral between Japan, South Korea, and China focused mainly on issues concerning transborder trade, commerce, safety, and North Korean Peninsular security. If they are successful in inviting China to this event, the Japanese government will happily participate. 

As we move into the latter half of 2023, what is the projected impact of the Camp David Summit on regional security? Is there a potential risk that in response to the summit that Beijing and Pyongyang ramp up their own defense forces and forge new areas of cooperation?

Over the years, the Chinese have very rarely spoken out on Japanese decision making on their defenses. This was seen even last December, when Japan announced a very significant uptick in its investment in military power and enhancement of its capabilities, possibly including counterstrike. The Chinese have a fairly realistic assessment of capabilities. They look at Japan and South Korea and focus on the capabilities that both countries have. They tend to speak out when it comes to the alliances with the United States. For example, in South Korea's case, they spoke out against the introduction of the THAAD missile defense system, which was largely for U.S. forces on the peninsula. Similarly, the Chinese will speak out when it's the U.S. and Japan together doing something in the East China Sea or South China Sea. However, they tend not to speak independently of the capabilities of Japan or the capabilities of South Korea. The way to think about the Camp David Summit is not in terms of the next few months, but actually the next four or five years. This is inviting South Korea into a conversation that's ongoing, as I noted earlier, in other diplomatic venues, like the Quad with Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. This is a new discussion among the leaders of the Indo-Pacific in Europe, the NATO conversation with Indo-Pacific allies, which includes both Japan and South Korea. And it's a close way for Korea, Japan, and the United States to talk about the agenda of economic security in addition to military security, but also the resilience of supply chains, the protection of critical technologies, and access to raw materials for EV batteries for next generation technologies. It opens the door to a much closer relationship between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington on some of these issues. 

One more thing that was behind the Camp David discussion: South Korea has experienced economic coercion by the Chinese directed at Lotte, the company that had rented the land where the U.S. THAAD missile defense system was deployed. Lotte suffered an immense amount of loss in its business with China. Both Japan and South Korea have felt the pain and sting of Chinese willingness to use economic instruments of coercion against countries that behave in ways it doesn't approve of. I would watch over the next five years to see how Camp David plays out and the question of regularizing trilateral leadership consultations. We need to look at it from the rearview mirror to see whether this summit is going to successfully integrate policy and coordination.

Caroline Kim '24Student Journalist

The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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