CAMP DAVID, Md. — President Joe Biden on Friday signed historic agreements with the leaders of South Korea and Japan, bridging the fraught history between the two countries with promises of strengthening each nation’s economic and national security interests.
In what was a clear message to China, Biden welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol for the first trilateral meeting between the three countries that wasn’t held on the sidelines of an international gathering.
“This is the first summit I’ve hosted at Camp David, and I can think of no more fitting location to symbolize our new era of cooperation,” Biden said at a joint press conference held at the rustic presidential campsite in the Catoctin Mountains, about 60 miles north of Washington.
The looming threats of China and North Korea shadowed the summit. Both Japan and South Korea are well within range of Pyongyang’s rocket tests, and both nations also have attempted to curb Beijing’s growing strength in the region. Biden saluted the “bravery” of both Asian leaders by setting aside generations of tensions between their countries, and he vowed that the new formalized alliance would be “unwavering in our unity and unmatched in our resolve.”
The multihour summit between the three leaders took place in a retreat filled with wooded paths once walked by each U.S. president since Franklin Roosevelt and by foreign leaders ranging from British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and even Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Administration officials hoped the informality of the presidential retreat — hosting its first world leaders meeting since 2015 — would foster what Biden on Friday called “the next era of partnership” with South Korea and Japan. The two Asian countries have long been at loggerheads with deep hostility stemming from Japan’s colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945.
Freed of the humidity of Washington and formality of the White House, the leaders appeared without neckties. Biden held individual meetings with each foreign leader before the trilateral meeting and press conference. Yoon and Kishida were at Camp David for about seven hours each.
The administration announced agreements to improve coordination on ballistic missile defense and information sharing, to contribute economic data such as an early warning system for supply chain disruptions, and to better coordinate national security such as multiyear plans to hold military exercises.
With an eye on threats imposed by both North Korea and China, the White House said it aimed to solidify the three countries’ cooperation for the long term. Biden stressed that the agreements would remain in place — even if Donald Trump were to return to the White House.
“His America First policy — walking us away from the rest of the world — makes us weaker, not stronger,” said Biden. He added that the summit launched “institutional changes” that “makes our relationships stronger and stay in place.”
To gird against political changes in any of the three countries, the agreement commits each country to annual meetings and military exercises, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said earlier Friday.
Both Japan and Korea also pledged to donate funding to help Hawaii recover from its recent deadly wildfires.
White House officials credited Biden for laying the groundwork for the handshakes since the beginning of his term. The president met frequently with both leaders, and other officials, including Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, did the same with their counterparts at international meetings.
White House aides believe the agreements will be judged by history as a signature accomplishment of a president who is deeply comfortable on matters of foreign policy. Once Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden rallied NATO and other democracies to Kyiv’s defense, revitalizing alliances and making the battle against autocracies a centerpiece of his presidency.
And Biden has long had his eye on China, seemingly coming close to fulfilling the goal of “pivoting to Asia,” a foreign policy prize that has eluded many of his predecessors. Biden has painted the 21st century as one of competition between the United States and China and many administration officials believe that China’s weakening economy and struggles with the Covid pandemic have allowed the U.S. to assert more influence in the Pacific.
And to combat China’s push in that region, the Biden administration also strengthened ties with the other nations in the so-called Quad — India, Australia, and Japan — and brokered the sale of nuclear submarines to Australia. And at a time of rising tensions with Beijing, the White House has also pressed it not to further assist Moscow in its invasion of Ukraine and has looked to it as an influence over North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
As part of the agreement, the countries committed to creating a communication channel to share information expeditiously if one faces a threat, such as a provocation from North Korea.
The principles include new language declaring that the three countries seek “the complete denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Until now, the U.S. said the goal was ridding the whole peninsula of nuclear weapons. The wording opens up the possibility that the administration will rotate nuclear assets to South Korea, like the first American nuclear-capable submarine to visit the country in four decades, or quietly support Seoul starting its own nuclear program.
National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson denied there was a new policy: “This [does] not in any way signal a change in the U.S. approach to North Korea, nor does it signal the possibility of the U.S. returning nuclear weapons to South Korea.”
At Friday’s news conference, Biden downplayed the role China played on the summit’s agenda, but he acknowledged it was a focus. Beijing, predictably, kept a close watch on the meeting in the Maryland woods.
“Attempts to cobble together various exclusionary groupings and bring bloc confrontation and military blocs into the Asia-Pacific are not going to get support and will only be met with vigilance and opposition from regional countries,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.
Sullivan pushed back on that critique, saying the summit is not “against anyone.”
“It is for a vision of the Indo-Pacific that is free, open, secure and prosperous.”
Alexander Ward and Phelim Kine contributed to this report.
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