The Observer View on the Camp David Summit: It Signals a New Cold War – This Time With China


The meeting between Joe Biden and the leaders of Japan and South Korea symbolises a profound hardening of attitudes in the Pacific

If it sounds like a new cold war and looks like a new cold war, then it probably is a new cold war. For what other interpretation is to be placed on US president Joe Biden’s latest ramping up of diplomatic, economic and military pressure on China?

Western officials tend to avoid the term, recalling as it does decades of hair-trigger confrontation with the former Soviet Union. They talk instead about enhanced security and defence cooperation and the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. But such bland generalisations belie the fact that Biden is now pushing back hard at a repressive, authoritarian regime in Beijing that he and many Americans believe is determined to overthrow the international democratic, geopolitical and legal order safeguarded by the US. Last week’s groundbreaking Camp David summit hosted by Biden for Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, and South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk Yeol, perfectly fitted this agenda. It produced a series of measures aimed squarely at China and its “dangerous and aggressive behaviour”.

They include a trilateral mechanism to deal with perceived security threats; expanded military exercises; and increased ballistic missile cooperation – despite the risk that China could retaliate in like fashion or use economic sanctions, as in the past, to punish export-dependent Tokyo and Seoul.

For Japan, the Camp David agreement marks another significant stage in its journey away from postwar pacifism towards becoming a fully fledged, fully armed member of the US-led western democratic alliance. It will add to Tokyo’s sense of growing confrontation with China.

For South Korea, the trilateral pact may come to be seen as the moment it finally moved on from the bitter feud with Japan over the latter’s 20th-century colonisation of the peninsula. Credit is due to Yoon, who has taken to describing Tokyo as a “partner” with shared values and interests.

Biden’s success in bringing old enemies together is a notable achievement, too. He is hoping to pull off a similar feat with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The contrast with Donald Trump’s fatuous attempts to woo Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s nuclear-armed dictator, is striking.

Improved three-way cooperation in facing down the threat posed by Pyongyang may be another benefit of Camp David. Defying UN sanctions, Kim has stepped up his intimidatory missile “tests” this year. China, disappointingly, has done little to stop him. Beijing’s ally, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, is positively encouraging him.

While US officials are careful how they frame the new agreement, China is in no doubt it is aimed directly at itself. It follows Biden’s upgrading of the so-called Quad, which groups the US, India, Japan and Australia; the creation of Aukus, a security pact with Australia and the UK; and a raised US naval and air force profile in the Philippines, South China Sea and around Taiwan. In another message to Beijing, Biden will visit India next month.

The numerous, ill-judged actions of President Xi Jinping’s regime have brought much of this down on its own head. Nevertheless, Beijing blames the west whose nefarious aim, it says, is containment designed to stifle China’s development. State media described Camp David as the launch of a “mini Nato” that will threaten regional security and exacerbate tensions.

US officials reject the analogy. But the claim brings us back to the question of a new cold war. China evidently believes one has already begun. Is this really what Biden, the UK and regional allies want? If that is the case, they should have the courage to say so in terms – and explain what they plan to do if it turns “hot”.

The subheading of this article was amended on 20 August 2023. The Camp David meeting did not involve the Japanese “head of state”, as an earlier version suggested, but rather the country’s prime minister.

Source: The Guardian