By Trevor Hunnicutt, David Brunnstrom and Hyonhee Shin
CAMP DAVID, Maryland (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden and the leaders of South Korea and Japan agreed at Camp David on Friday to deepen military and economic cooperation and made their strongest joint condemnation yet of "dangerous and aggressive behavior" by China in the South China Sea.
The Biden administration held the summit with the leaders of the main U.S. allies in Asia, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in a bid to project unity in the face of China's growing power and nuclear threats from North Korea.
In a summit statement the three countries committed to consult promptly with each other during crises and to coordinate responses to regional challenges, provocations and threats affecting common interests.
They also agreed to hold military training exercises annually and to share real-time information on North Korean missile launches by the end of 2023. The countries promised to hold trilateral summits annually.
While the political commitments fall short of a formal three-way alliance, they represent a bold move for Seoul and Tokyo, which have a long history of mutual acrimony stemming from Japan's harsh 1910-1945 colonial rule of Korea.
The summit at the Maryland presidential retreat was the first standalone meeting between the U.S. and Japan and South Korea and came about thanks to a rapprochement launched by Yoon and driven by shared perceptions of threats posed by China and North Korea, as well as Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
The leaders' language on China stood out as stronger than expected, and is likely to provoke a response from Beijing, which is a vital trading partner for both South Korea and Japan.
"Regarding the dangerous and aggressive behavior supporting unlawful maritime claims that we have recently witnessed by the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the South China Sea, we strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the waters of the Indo-Pacific," the statement said.
The spokesperson for China's Washington embassy, Liu Pengyu, said the international community was able to judge who was increasing tensions.
"Attempts to cobble together various exclusionary groupings and bring bloc confrontation and military blocs into the Asia-Pacific are not going to get support and will only be met with vigilance and opposition from regional countries," he said.
It was Biden's first Camp David summit for foreign leaders and he said the woodsy venue had long symbolized "the power of new beginnings and new possibilities."
"If I seem like I'm happy, I am," he told a joint news conference with Kishida and Yoon, calling it a "new era" for the three countries. "This has been a great, great meeting."
Biden praised the leaders for their political courage in pursuing a rapprochement. He said they understood the world was "at an inflection point, where we're called to lead in new ways, to work together, to stand together."
"Critically, we've all committed to swiftly consult with each other in response to threats to any one of our countries from whatever source it occurs." he said. "That means we'll have a hotline to share information and coordinate our responses whenever there is a crisis in the region, or affecting any one of our countries."
"Together we're going to stand up for international law," and against "coercion," Biden said.
Without mentioning China by name, Kishida said, "Unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force in the East and South China Seas are continuing," while adding that the North Korean nuclear and missile threat was "only becoming ever larger."
Yoon said the summit agreement meant that “any provocations or attacks against any one of our three countries will trigger a decision making process of this trilateral framework and our solidarity will become even stronger and harder."
U.S. officials say lingering historical baggage is among the reasons the three countries are not currently pursing a three-way mutual-defense pact like those Washington has separately with both Seoul and Tokyo - who are not themselves formal allies.
However Kurt Campbell, Biden's coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, said the summit came about thanks to "a breathtaking kind of diplomacy" led by Yoon and Kishida, who had "sometimes gone against the advice of their own counselors and staff."
CHINA VIEWS SUMMIT WARILY
Beijing previously warned that U.S. efforts to strengthen ties with South Korea and Japan could "increase tension and confrontation in the region.
While South Korea, Japan and the United States want to avoid provoking Beijing, China believes Washington is trying to isolate it diplomatically and encircle it militarily.
Asked about charges leveled by China, Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters the aim was "explicitly not a NATO for the Pacific" and also said that a trilateral alliance had not been set as an explicit goal.
The White House, conscious of upcoming elections, wants to make the progress between South Korea and Japan hard to reverse by institutionalizing routine cooperation across the board.
Biden, an 80-year-old Democrat seeking another four-year term in the 2024 presidential election, faces a likely opponent in Republican former President Donald Trump, who has voiced skepticism about whether Washington benefits from its traditional military and economic alliances.
South Korea has legislative elections next year and Japan must hold one before October 2025, and what analysts see as a still fragile rapprochement between the two nations remains controversial among the countries' voters.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt at Camp David and David Brunnstrom and Susan Heavey in Washington; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Editing by Don Durfee, Grant McCool, Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)