With Trilateral Summit, China, Japan, South Korea Look for a Reset

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With Trilateral Summit, China, Japan, South Korea Look for a Reset

Despite obvious friction points, the three leaders are hoping to make progress on economic cooperation – especially a long-sought FTA.

With Trilateral Summit, China, Japan, South Korea Look for a Reset

From left: Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, and Chinese Premier Li Qiang attend a joint press briefing before the Ninth Trilateral Summit Meeting among China, Japan, and South Korea at Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul, South Korea, May 27, 2024.

Credit: Office of the President, ROK / Kang Min Seok

A long-awaited meeting between leaders from China, Japan, and South Korea marked “a restart and a new beginning” in relations between the Asian countries, according to Chinese Premier Li Qiang.

The three leaders met in Seoul on May 26 and 27, the first gathering at such a level since 2019. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s team arranged a series of bilateral meetings between himself and the visitors, before Yoon hosted a trilateral summit. His aim was to enhance South Korea’s reputation as a “global pivotal state” – a key foreign policy objective.  

The South Korean Foreign Ministry hailed significant and tangible outcomes. These included a promise to revive negotiations toward reaching a free trade agreement between the nations. The leaders also said that they will meet annually from now on. The trilateral summit has long been conceived of as an annual gathering, but disputes among the parties have caused frequent disruptions. 

Despite the successful resumption of the summit this week, an underlying ideological divide between the countries was apparent, according to Dr. Minseon Ku, an expert on foreign policy and international security at Dartmouth College in the United States.

“China is the most important trading partner for both South Korea and Japan, so economically it is in their interests to maintain a healthy relationship. A Free Trade Agreement makes sense in the economic context,” Ku explained. “However, politically, President Yoon has been making it clear that he is a strong supporter of the U.S. concept of a rules-based international order. He also says that he shares common interests and values with Japan. That is a clear shift away from China in terms of foreign policy.”

East Asian trilateral summits of this type started in 2008, during the global financial crisis. At the time, the nations found ways to help each other through a turbulent period. 

But the grouping lost momentum after its fifth summit in May 2012, with the sixth not occurring until November 2015. In the interim, Abe Shinzo, a right-wing politician, took office as Japan’s prime minister. His visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 scuttled Japan’s relations with both China and South Korea for years.

The trilateral summit met in 2018 and 2019, before a historical spat between Japan and South Korea, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, once again put the grouping on ice. There was also a lack of enthusiasm for the meetings on the part of Japanese prime ministers, who questioned the value of talking with a Chinese premier, rather than President Xi Jinping, China’s top leader.

“Xi’s absence does raise questions about how much he wants to nurture good relations with China’s neighbors,” Ku said. “However, traditionally, this meeting has always been a forum for the premier. Li’s involvement suggests that China has decided to try to improve the dynamic in a region which it has been neglecting.”

Another tangible outcome from the bilateral round of talks was a pledge by Yoon and Li to establish a security dialogue involving the foreign and defense ministries of South Korea and China. In diplomatic jargon, this type of meeting is known as a 2+2 dialogue and it will resume in mid-June.

China may wish to improve its relationship with South Korea in response to a large number of meetings between Yoon and senior political figures in the United States. A trilateral summit involving Yoon and Kishida was held at U.S. President Joe Biden’s Camp David retreat in the summer of 2023.

Beijing sees such meetings as an attempt to contain it, said Ku. She pointed out that the U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific currently emphasizes enhancing multilateral relationships, rather than depending on bilateral links with established allies. She cites the example of AUKUS, involving Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as the recent three-way meeting between Biden, Kishida and Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as examples of a plan to build “a chain of trilaterals.”

“In response to this, China feels encircled,” said Ku. Chinese diplomats have responded by accusing the United States and its allies of “playing bloc politics” and clinging to a Cold War mentality.

The bilateral between Kishida and Li in Seoul was marked by a tense mood. Kishida reiterated his demand that China lift a blanket ban on Japanese seafood imports, which was imposed after treated wastewater from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant was released into the Pacific Ocean last year.

The Taiwan issue was also raised. The People’s Liberation Army has been conducting intense military exercises around the island since the inauguration of Taiwan’s President Lai Ching-te on May 20.

“I stressed that peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait are extremely important for Japan and the international community, while conveying that we are closely monitoring recent developments, including the military situation there,” Kishida told reporters.

By contrast, the two-way encounter between Kishida and Yoon was far more upbeat. It ended with pledges to bolster cooperation and address global challenges. The leaders spoke of developing a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.” Yoon chose not to mention the Fukushima water issue, which has been the source of much public anger in South Korea.

“This could lead his [Yoon’s] political opponents in South Korea to claim he’s bowing to Japan and not pursuing the national interest,” said Ku. She noted that recent opinion polls in South Korea suggested negative views towards Japan are entrenched, despite the political rapprochement.

North Korea is another friction point in the trilateral grouping.

In April, China dispatched a senior official to Pyongyang to reassert China’s “deep friendship” with Kim Jong Un. As the East Asian leaders were meeting in Seoul, the North Korean military attempted to launch a spy satellite into space. The rocket carrying the payload exploded, sending debris falling to the ground. This led to strong condemnation from the leaders of South Korea and Japan. China did not join the chorus of disapproval.

The South Korean and Japanese leaders also called for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a long-held aspiration. The Chinese delegation said it would support regional security and stability, but chose not to say anything directly about North Korea.

In Ku’s view, trilateral meetings of this type have limited value as a security mechanism. “The opportunities lie elsewhere, primarily in terms of business and economics,” she said. “For that reason, the resumption of negotiations towards a  trilateral FTA may be regarded as a positive step for all involved. These three nations have long proved that they can get along very well in terms of trade and investment.”