Asia’s Super Summit: Shaping a New NATO?


Is a NATO being born in Asia? The thesis, or rather the alarm, comes from Beijing. In fact, this is how the Chinese government media present the trilateral summit which this Friday brings together the leaders of the United States, Japan and South Korea at Camp David. The Chinese reading may seem like a stretch, but it is also true that the summit is defined as historic: one cannot nothing like it had ever been held in that format, much less in a venue as dense with reminiscences as the presidential residence at Camp David. The agreement between the three actually contains many novelties; and is oriented towards creating a defensive shield against the two main threats in that area: first of all the bellicose and unpredictable North Korea, then the People’s Republic of China itself.

One of the salient aspects – and indigestible for Xi Jinping – is precisely the trilateral format. The two-way alliances, between the US and Japan on the one hand, between the US and South Korea on the other, have existed for many decades. However, until now it had been impossible to “close the triangle”, because a series of historical disputes poisoned relations between Tokyo and Seoul, especially issues related to the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The climate has changed with two leaders who have decided to put aside their grievances over the past and their counter-retaliations: South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. This allows for three-way cooperation in key areas of defense and technological security.

It is still too early to talk about an Asian NATO, but this triangle adds to the Aukus military device (joint defense in the Pacific between the United States, United Kingdom, Australia) and the Quad geopolitical club which brings together a quadrilateral of democracies from Indo- Pacific (still the USA in the center, in this case surrounded by India Japan Australia).

For Xi Jinping’s propaganda, all this is proof that America is fomenting a “cold war mentality”. But Beijing is not immune to this syndrome. Having recently wanted to celebrate the sary of the “victory” against the United States in the Korean War of 1953 – started by an aggression of the communist North against the South – together with representatives of Putin and Kim Jong-Un, was a gesture with which China betrayed its nostalgic version of the clash between blocks.

The Camp David summit is under the banner of two major themes: the sharing of values between liberal democracies, and security. It has a strong goal, the so-called “institutionalization” of relations between the three allies. What does it mean? It means giving a permanent structure to their relationship, which ranges from cooperation in intelligence to anti-missile defence, up to policies for the protection of technological know-how. The immediate and visible threat to face is North Korea which continues to intensify its missile tests and its construction of nuclear arsenals. Behind there is a less direct but immanent threat, the military expansionism of the People’s Republic in that area. Institutionalizing, for example by creating a permanent secretariat of the triangle, gives the idea that the comparison with NATO is pertinent, even if in the Far East we are still at a very embryonic stage compared to the military structures of the Atlantic Alliance. Institutionalizing also means guaranteeing the durability of the relationship between allies beyond the political situation and electoral cycles: ensuring that advanced military cooperation cannot be called into question at every change of government in Seoul (where voting takes place early), in Tokyo, and of course also in Washington.

The unsaid is that allies must be reassured in the event of a return of Donald Trump to the White House. The prospect of a Trump victory in next year’s elections worries Japanese and South Koreans, given the isolationist tendency of the Republican candidate and his contempt for alliances. This concern has already caused an effect that many consider disturbing: the reopening of a debate in both Japan and South Korea on the construction of autonomous nuclear weapons so as not to depend on American deterrence. By now a majority of South Korean public opinion is in favor of the atomic weapon: this is understandable, given the looming North Korean nuclear power in the hands of Kim Jong-Un. Washington’s strategic doctrine is against this nuclear proliferation, even among allies. America has always thought it is dangerous, the Pentagon believes that a nuclear arms race in Tokyo and Seoul could destabilize the area. But if the United States wants to block this evolution, it must provide guarantees that its nuclear umbrella will continue to protect friends in the Far East: this is another compelling rationale behind the Camp David summit and the objective of institutionalizing the alliance in so that they survive regardless of who comes to the White House in 2024 or after.

Other topics on the summit agenda are on the border between defence, security and the economy. The resilience of industrial production chains will be at the center of the discussion: how to avoid them being at the mercy of Chinese supplies, particularly in technological sectors such as semiconductors, electric batteries, essential materials (rare earths, minerals and metals) where the Republic Popular has so far a dominant position.

Those meeting at Camp David are the leaders of three tech superpowers: they will discuss their respective accession to Joe Biden’s embargo on supplies of advanced technologies to Beijing. Japan, and even more South Korea with Samsung, have industrial lobbies for which the loss of the Chinese market is a heavy sacrifice. A giant like Samsung has so far continued to sell semiconductors to the People’s Republic and to manufacture them in the factories it owns in China, even if it has recently agreed to stop supplying some sophisticated types. Moreover, both Japan and South Korea are attracted by the generous subsidies that Biden offers to those who build new semiconductor factories on US territory. Here we find a familiar theme in the dialogue between the United States and the European Union: the allies, even when they converge in their analysis of the Chinese threat, are critical of forms of American protectionism by which they see themselves harmed. It is a terrain on which Biden must offer compromises, lest he feel accused of applying his version of the Trumpian slogan “America First”.

If the embryo of an “Asian NATO” is destined to be born at Camp David – with all the differences of the case – it is in any case due to the policy of Xi Jinping.

The same goes for the Taiwan issue, which hovers over the summit. The re-legitimization of Kim Jong-Un, who just a decade ago was treated as a pariah by the Chinese themselves, and is now pampered as a respectable ally (as well as Putin’s arms supplier); Xi Jinping’s choice to de facto support the aggression against Ukraine: all this has triggered self-defense dynamics in the Far East that are not very different from those underway in Europe. But Japan and South Korea had tasted before anyone else the unilateral sanctions decided by Beijing to punish them for some “blunder” in foreign policy: the review of China had begun for them even before Ukraine, this war has accelerated it.
This article is originally published on


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