President Joe Biden is using the presidential retreat at Camp David to help with a diplomatic mission – hosting the first-ever trilateral summit with Japan and South Korea, two countries that are putting aside a fraught history in the face of shared security challenges.
Biden’s summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol is meant to serve as a show of force as the countries grapple with persistent provocative behavior from North Korea. It also comes as the president has sought to deepen ties with allies in the Indo-Pacific amid concerns about a rising China.
On Friday, Biden will host the leaders at the secluded getaway in the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland where they are set to deepen defense, technology and economic cooperation between the three countries, senior administration officials said.
The leaders will establish annual military exercises, including regular ballistic missile drills, and discuss new intelligence-sharing agreements, officials said. They will take steps to set up a three-way hotline for the leaders to consult in crises and will formalize the trilateral summit, the first of its kind, as an annual event.
The summit will fall short of a producing a three-way collective defense agreement but will underscore “that a challenge to any one of the countries is a challenge to all of them,” a senior administration official said.
Per the official, the “commitment to consult” will offer a nod to what they called “a fundamentally linked security environment,” where “something that poses a threat to any one of us poses a threat to all of us,” and will be released as a standalone document following Friday’s trilateral summit.
But it will not constitute a formal alliance commitment or collective defense agreement, nor will it “change or impinge, in any way, the existing bilateral commitment” between the United States and either country, the official added.
The gathering will mark the first time Biden is hosting foreign leaders at the Camp David retreat, a site of historic diplomatic negotiations for past presidents. Biden will greet the leaders at Camp David on Friday morning for the trilateral meetings, and they are expected to hold a joint news conference at the end of the summit.
The prospect of trilateral progress between the countries was not always a given. The relationship between Seoul and Tokyo is trailed by decades of tension and mistrust, including a dispute between the two countries over forced labor by Japan during its occupation of Korea.
But in the face of persistent missile threats from North Korea and China’s military maneuvering in the region, Kishida and Yoon have gone to great lengths to put aside those differences, including hosting a fence-mending summit in March, the first of its kind in 12 years. US officials have credited that work as a key step in cementing the trilateral partnership once thought unimaginable.
“China’s entire strategy is based on the premise that America’s number one and number two ally in the region can’t get together and get on the same page,” Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan, said at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday. He added the trilateral partnership is “a foundational piece that alters all calculations.”
Ahead of the summit, South Korea believes North Korea is preparing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch and other “provocations” around the gathering or the upcoming joint military drills between the US and South Korea set to begin next week, according to a South Korean lawmaker briefed by the country’s intelligence service.
A senior administration official said the US anticipates criticism and reactions from Pyongyang and Beijing around the summit but said the president’s focus is on “making sure that the region knows that this trilateral partnership is operating at a new level and as a fundamental force.”
The gathering at the secluded, wooded retreat will also highlight Biden’s mission of reinvigorating alliances in the wake of the tumultuous four years of his predecessor – a key argument from Biden’s 2020 campaign that’s extending into his reelection bid.
From the start of his administration, Biden has sought to draw Asian allies like Japan and South Korea closer, in part, to counter an ascendant China. Biden’s first foreign leader visits at the White House were Japan and South Korea, and he visited the countries back-to-back in May 2022.
The leaders held trilateral meetings on the sidelines of last year’s NATO Summit in Madrid and at the G7 in Hiroshima in May, but the Camp David gathering will be the first stand-alone summit for the three leaders.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan has held yearly meetings with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts beginning with a sit-down in Annapolis, Maryland, less than three months into Biden’s time in office.
Biden has worked to foster his individual relationships and cooperation with South Korea and Japan. Biden and Kishida have touted efforts to strengthen their country’s military alliance and the two men have worked closely as the US has sought to rally allies against Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we were closer,” Biden said as he met with Kishida in the Oval Office in January.
During a state visit for South Korea at the White House in April, Biden and Yoon announced a new agreement to deter North Korean aggression, including a US commitment to temporarily deploy a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time since the 1980s.
The visit also included memorable personal touches as South Korea’s president serenaded dinner guests with a verse from “American Pie.” The president in return gifted Yoon a guitar signed by the musician responsible for the song, Don McLean. Yoon’s father Yoon Ki Jung passed away on Tuesday, just days before the South Korean president was set to travel to the US.
Despite the current closeness of all three nations, the White House has been mindful of potential rollbacks to this progress during a future administration in all three countries. One of the senior officials said there have been efforts to “make it difficult to backtrack from the commitments that each of the three will make at Camp David.” Those comments are particularly notable as former President Donald Trump, who adopted an isolationist foreign policy stance during his tenure and had multiple friendly visits with Kim Jong Un, continues to lead GOP primary polling.
While the US, Japan and South Korea have long worked together on issues of North Korean aggression, “increasingly aggressive” behavior by China and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “have increasingly obviously created incentives to cooperate” further, another senior administration official added.
“They increasingly have aligned affirmative interests and objectives” in the region, that official said.
Friday’s meeting in the rustic setting could offer an opportunity to deepen those personal ties. A senior administration official said the backdrop of Camp David will convey “images and symbolism certainly of reconciliation, of friendship and of new beginnings … symbols that Camp David has encapsulated for a long time.”
Camp David was chosen “quite carefully” as the summit site, the official said.
“That venue is reserved for only the most important and significant such meetings,” said the senior official, pointing to the historic Camp David Accords during the Carter presidency and other critical meetings in US history. “We believe this is clearly at that level.”
Located roughly 60 miles outside of Washington, Camp David became a personal retreat for US presidents starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who called the grounds “Shangri-La.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower later renamed the grounds after his grandson.
When not at the White House or one of their homes in Delaware, Biden and his family have frequented the wooded getaway on weekends. But this will mark the first time the president is playing host to foreign leaders.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was the first world leader to visit the grounds in 1943, meeting with Roosevelt as the US president fished in one of the streams on site. Two weeks of negotiations that led to the Camp David Accords, the historic peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, took place at the retreat during President Jimmy Carter’s tenure.
President Bill Clinton tried for another Middle East peace deal as he hosted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000, but those talks ultimately failed to reach an agreement.
The last US president to use the grounds for diplomatic meetings was President Barack Obama, who hosted Gulf state leaders there in 2015. Former President Donald Trump considered inviting the Taliban to Camp David in 2019 but ultimately scrapped those plans after the group took credit for a bombing that killed 12 people, including a US soldier.