Divided worlds

August 27, 2023

Biden’s Camp David huddle with Japan, South Korea aims to counter rising Chinese influence

Divided worlds


n a rapidly changing geopolitical environment characterised by economic, security and climate challenges, diplomatic engagements play a pivotal role in shaping international relations and promoting stability. President Joe Biden’s recent meeting at Camp David with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol holds great importance in this respect.

The trilateral summit was aimed at reinforcing the strong US alliances with its East Asian partners. “Your leadership, with the full support of the United States, has brought us here, because each of you understands that our world stands at an inflection point – a point where we’re called to lead in new ways, to work together, to stand together – and today, I’m proud to say our nations are answering that call,” Biden said. The three nation states have deep historical and economic ties. This meeting sought to reaffirm their commitment to shared security, prosperity and regional stability. In addition, the meeting aimed at addressing regional challenges, enhancing diplomatic coordination and exploring avenues for cooperation in various areas.

The Korean peninsula has remained a point of concern for the three nations owing to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The trio discussed ways and means to encourage dialogue and negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to seek complete denuclearisation and reduction in regional instability. Given China’s growing military capability and economic engagement with regional countries, security cooperation among the three states was also deliberated. To this end, they discussed joint military exercises, information sharing and technological collaboration in order to enhance deterrence against potential security threats particularity in the South China Sea. The Taiwan Strait issues was also raised and alarmed China.

“The strengthened US-Japan-South Korea alliance mechanism may incite camp confrontation, potentially leading to a new Cold War scenario in Northeast Asia. The summit discussions and the final outcome documents explicitly reference China’s maritime rights protection activities in the South China Sea, the situation in the Taiwan Straits, North Korean missile launches… frequent military actions [by the alliance] will escalate the risk of military friction, even armed conflicts within the region… [moreover] economic decoupling of Japan and South Korea from China, pursued by the US in recent years, goes against the principles of economic development and the long-term interests of both countries,” observed China’s premier English daily, Global Times.

Besides purely geopolitical concerns, the three leaders reflected confidence to promote economic ties in terms of exploring trade agreements, investment opportunities and proposing strategies to bolster economic resilience in the Covid-19 aftermath.

The three county heads also touched upon climate challenges and vowed to expedite the adoption of clean energy, thus, discouraging carbon-fuel use. However, this is easier said than done given the past track of the US and key European economies which emit massive amounts of carbon and greenhouse gases. The summit, thus, basically highlights the US intent to strengthen its military-strategic position in the Indo-Pacific in order to counter China.

The latter, however, views such developments with strategic patience. China has also established commercial linkages with both South Korea and Japan. It does not seem likely that these regional economies will soon decouple from China. There are also intriguing issues of historical importance between Japan and Korea including Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula. The two sides need to sort out the historical baggage. This will take time.

South Korea and Japan go to polls in 2024 and 2025, respectively. Hence, domestic politics is also at play at shaping their foreign policy behavior. The US too has presidential election next year. In the absence of a formal security treaty, the three will find it hard to move in sync in a military crisis.

The three leaders discussed joint military exercises, information sharing and technological collaboration in order to enhance deterrence against potential security threats particularity in the South China Sea. The summit highlights the US intent to strengthen its military-strategic position in the Indo-Pacific in order to counter China.

China is apparently mindful of developments like the setting up of the QUAD, the AUKUS and the Five Eyes. It has been busy diplomatically promoting its strategic and economic interests in various parts of the world. In this context, President Xi Jinping’s trip to South Africa speaks volumes about the deepening ties between the two countries. The relationship between China and South Africa is rooted in history, marked by solidarity in their struggles against colonialism, racism and oppression.

The historical connection provides a foundation of trust and shared values that continue to influence their modern-day partnership. Economic ties between China and South Africa have expanded significantly in recent decades. Trade agreements, investment partnerships and frameworks like the Belt and Road Initiative have been pivotal in enhancing connectivity between China and South Africa. South Africa’s role in the BRICS adds another layer to institutional cooperation.

As per its website, the “BRICS is a partnership of five leading emerging markets and developing countries, founded on historical bonds of friendship, solidarity and shared interests. Together, the Federative Republic of Brazil, the Russian Federation, the Republic of India, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of South Africa represent over 42 percent of the global population, 30 percent of the world’s territory, 23 percent of GDP and 18 percent of global trade.” Its core values include a shared commitment to restructure the global political, economic, and financial architecture in a transparent, balanced and representative manner.

In this respect, the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and China initially gathered on the sidelines of the G8 Outreach Summit held in St Petersburg, Russia, in July 2006. It was formalised with the first BRIC Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly the same year. The first BRIC Summit was held in Russia in 2009. The following year, South Africa joined as a member. It also attended the third BRICS Summit in 2011. BRICS meetings, held annually, serve as a crucial forum for these countries to discuss a wide range of economic, political and global issues.

The BRICS meeting held in South Africa was an opportunity for these economies to discuss strategies for enhancing trade, investment and economic cooperation among themselves. A primary focus for BRICS has been socioeconomic development and poverty alleviation in the member countries. In this respect, South Africa, as host of the summit, displayed its development initiatives and shared experiences with other member countries. Mutual discussions revolved around sharing best practices, technology transfer and cooperation in sectors such as infrastructure, healthcare and education.

Geopolitically, the BRICS represents a diverse set of interests, including those of the developed and the developing worlds. The meeting in South Africa provided a platform for member countries to coordinate their positions on key global issues, fostering a sense of unity in addressing common concerns and advocating for reforms in international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation. Thr summit was also aimed at expanding the organisation.

“We have agreed on the matter of expansion…We have adopted a document that sets out guidelines and principles, processes for considering countries that wish to become members of BRICS... That’s very positive” said the host country’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor. However, the entry of new members into BRICS requires procedural fine-tuning which may take some time.

Noticeably, around forty countries have expressed their desire to join the BRICS. 22 countries have formally requested to be admitted in the influential regional organisation. These countries represent a disparate pool of potential candidates, ranging from Iran to Argentina. However, the Indian prime minister is reported to have pressed for new set of conditions for new members. It has been proposed, for example, that no sanctioned country should be allowed membership. This will leave out oil-rich countries such as Venezuela and Iran. The Indian move has been seen by some BRICS representatives as a means to appease the Biden administration, displeased with India’s stance on Russian aggression in Ukraine.

India also wants to be counted as a major power at par with China and Russia. However, China’s institutional and political significance is hard to be curtailed.

Key regional and global players such as the US and the EU have been keen to follow the developments in Johannesburg where the Chinese president remained in the political limelight and the Russian president spoke his mind through video conference.

“The world ... has entered a new period of turbulence and transformation…. We, the BRICS countries, should always bear in mind our founding purpose of strengthening ourselves through unity,” said President Xi Jinping. BRICS has been cautious not to send negative signals to key non-BRICS powers, especially the US.

The writer has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and an associate professor. He can be reached at ejaz.bhatty@gmail.com

Divided worlds