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Recent Camp David Summit: New Cold War Redux?

The Camp David understanding clearly establishes a trilateral defence pact in the Indo-Pacific despite the open disclaimer that it is not a mini-NATO or a Pacific NATO.

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President Biden greeted President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan. It was the first time Mr. Biden had invited foreign leaders to Camp David. [ Photo: amuel Corum for The New York Times ]

On 18 August 2023, US President Joe Biden announced a “new history” at a new Camp David Summit of three countries—the United States, Japan and South Korea. The old Camp David Summit in 1978 is well known for bringing Israel and Egypt together by the Carter Administration.

The hostility between Japan and South Korea is nowhere near the Egypt-Israel in the post-Second World War era, yet the mutual multiple grievances and political discomfort to forge security ties in Seoul and Tokyo for decades is palpable.

The United States has strategic alliance with both Japan and South Korea, but has been unable for decades to bring Japan and South Korea together until the recent new Camp David summit on 18th August. The US strategy in the Asia-Pacific region during the prolonged Cold War years was characterized as hub-and-spoke alliance networks. The US was the hub and the alliance partners were Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand.

The only collective defence treaty then in the region was SEATO or Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation signed in Manila in 1954. SEATO became infructuous after the US withdrawal from Vietnam War in 1975. The hub-and-spoke arrangements, however, survived and continued in somewhat modified form after the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed and China became a major trade partner of the US and the hub-and-spoke pattern of alliances turned less relevant.

However, the economic and military rise of China to a point it has begun to compete with the US for more space in the global order and, more specifically now in the Indo-Pacific order, has altered the geopolitical landscape in the region. The four years of Trump Administration, meanwhile, undermined Washington’s alliance partners in the region, particularly Japan and South Korea not only due to President Trump’s lack of trust in allies but also because of his political outreach to Russia and North Korea.

President Trump subsequently started an economic cold war with China and Beijing openly roared against what it perceived a “new containment policy” of the United States. When Joe Biden became the president, US-China ties were already appearing confrontational. The Ukraine War and the Chinese position on it; the Sino-US political standoff in the Taiwan Strait and the Western talk about building alternative supply chain and de-risking trade and invest partnership with China contributed towards a path of new cold war in the Indo-Pacific.
China’s aggressive postures in South China and East China Seas; rapid military modernization, fast naval expansion and rising technological capabilities appear to have rung the alarm bells in the American strategic community. President Biden, an old hand on foreign affairs, has systematically moved to reemphasize the importance of alliances, to strengthen the existing alliances, to build on strategic partnerships with multiple countries, including India and to show interest in economic affairs in the Indo-Pacific region. Strengthening of the QUAD; creating AUKUS; proposing Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) and regular naval drills and exercises in the Pacific are the hallmarks of the Biden Administration’s approach to handle the worrisome expansion of Chinese power and influence.

As if those initiatives were not adequate, Biden convened a summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister and South Korea President at Camp David. The summit ended with issuance of a Joint Statement, a set of Camp David Principles and “Spirit of Camp David”.

The outcome of the Camp David summit testifies to the intensification of Sino-US cold confrontation (NOT COLD WAR) that has complicated the geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific for quite sometime. But the significance of it goes beyond that. First, he was able to bring together on a common platform two key allies of the US who were unable to see many regional issues eye-to-eye. Second, the Camp David understanding clearly establishes a trilateral defence pact in the Indo-Pacific despite the open disclaimer that it is not a mini-NATO or a Pacific NATO. In fact, it goes beyond the NATO and encompasses close cooperation and coordination in the fields of security, defence, cyber security, economy, and even education. Third, it is more comprehensive in its dimensions than AUKUS. The three countries have pledged to coordinate their responses to threats and challenges through consultation by using a hotline connecting all three capitals. Fourth, while the Camp David agreements highlight the importance of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, it goes beyond the region and includes coordinated responses to the Ukraine War.

India has deeper interest in the geopolitical peace and geo-economic opportunities in the larger Indo-Pacific region. This development needs careful watch and serious analysis. There is no doubt that India’s interests lie in Japan and South Korea burying their hatchets and shaking hands to confront the emerging challenges in the region. India has strategic partnerships with all three countries. While South Korea is not a part of the Quad, it has its own Indo-Pacific strategy and its inclusion in a separate trilateral arrangement is not antithetical to goals of the Quad. In a way, UK’s participation in AUKUS also adds another country—the UK to multilateral initiatives, though in smaller groups, to address the challenges and promote peace and stability.

The US-Japan-South Korea trilateral has rightly drawn attention to China’s aggressive naval expansion and assertive policies. North Korea’s offensive statements and missile tests too pose considerable threats to regional peace.

Yet, the main question is whether it would further anger and isolate Beijing in the region. Chinese analysts see in the Camp David yet another move to create NATO-type arrangements targeting China. President Biden’s assurances that the trilateral does not target China and his National Security Advisor’s assertion that the trilateral pact is not a “mini-NATO” have no takers in China.

But what the Chinese analysts fail to see is the persistent efforts by China to intimidate smaller neighbours, grab territories of neighbouring countries, occupy islands in the Seas and practice predator economic practices through its Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) constitute the provocations that have caused widespread apprehensions and have threatened peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

There is no New Cold War yet, but the cold confrontations provoked by China may lead to one and the key to its prevention is in Beijing.

Chintamani Mahapatra

Chintamani Mahapatra is Founder Chairperson, Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies, and formerly, Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

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