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Rare Encounter: South Korea, China, Japan to Hold Trilateral Summit

The leaders of South Korea, China and Japan will gather for a trilateral summit on May 26-27, 2024, the first in more than four years.

According to South Korea’s presidential office, the summit’s goal is for the three Asian neighbors to discuss how to revive cooperation and manage relations amid heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing over a range of issues.

Bilateral Talks

Kim Tae-hyo, Seoul’s deputy national security director, said that the trilateral meeting will take place between South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in Seoul on Monday.

Kim told a news conference that Li and Kishida will arrive in South Korea on Sunday and will meet Yoon individually on Sunday afternoon, reported the Associated Press (AP). Chinese President Xi Jinping will not attend.

Enhancing Cooperation

According to Kim, the three leaders are expected to discuss cooperation on six areas, including personnel exchanges, climate change, trade, health and aging population, technology and disasters. They will adopt a joint statement after their summit.

“This summit will be a turning point in completely restoring and normalizing the trilateral cooperation system, while providing an opportunity to secure momentum for forward-looking, practical cooperation from which the people of the three countries can feel the benefits,” Kim said.

Controversial Issues

The three leaders’ discussions will also touch upon unspecified regional and international political issues, collective response to a global poly-crisis and contribution to international peace, Kim added.

The neighbors had agreed to hold a summit every year starting in 2008. But their last trilateral summit was held in 2019. The initiative has been suspended as a result of COVID-19 pandemic and bilateral frictions among the Asian nations.

The three nations’ efforts to strengthen trilateral cooperation have been hindered by a mix of issues, such as disputes stemming from Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula, the strategic competition between China and the US, and North Korea’s evolving weapons program.

Both South Korea and Japan are key US military allies, hosting 80,000 American troops on their territories. Given Pyongyang’s advancing nuclear program and Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, Seoul and Tokyo have reinforced their security partnership with Washington. This has infuriated China and North Korea.

Seoul and Tokyo have also warned against any attempt to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. China on Thursday launched large-scale military exercises encircling Taiwan, just three days after Taiwan’s new president, Lai Ching-te, took office.

China said the two-day war games was a “punishment” for Lai, after he urged Beijing in his inauguration speech to stop its threats and said the two sides of the strait were “not subordinate to each other,” reported Reuters.

Mutual Interests

South Korea, China and Japan share close economic and cultural ties. Together, they account for about 25% of the global GDP. Observers believe this summit comes at a time when the three countries need to improve ties. South Korea and Japan have an interest in maintaining good ties with China, their largest trading partner, while Beijing doesn’t want its neighbors’ security partnership with Washington to strengthen further.

Kim Yeol Soo, an analyst with South Korea’s Korea Institute for Military Affairs, said: “If the current situation continues, South Korea, the US and Japan will stick together further, forming a tool to check and contain China. In that sense, China can’t help thinking that advancing ties with South Korea and Japan will better serve its national interests.”

Paik Wooyeal, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, pointed out that it would be easier for South Korea and Japan to deal with China in a trilateral structure than bilaterally.

As a key ally for North Korea and a main source of aid, South Korea, Japan and the US want China to use its influence to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program.

Low Expectations

Many observers expect that the trilateral summit will not yield meaningful results. Kang Jun-young, director of Center for International Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, told Reuters that the absence of the Chinese president will keep military, foreign affairs, and security issues off the agenda.

Other diplomats believe that global concerns that divided South Korean and Japan from China will impact the meeting. According to one diplomat based in the region, the three countries cannot work as a group. He said: “We compete on a lot of things and obviously South Korea and Japan are US allies so that makes things extra challenging.”

The diplomat expected the summit to be mostly “cultural”, and that China would likely want the joint statement to include something about supply chain stability. In a similar vein, two Japanese foreign ministry officials said they didn’t expect any big announcements from the summit.

Meanwhile, a South Korean official said that the gathering of the three countries is meaningful by itself. Likewise, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin expressed on Thursday Beijing’s hopes that the talks “will inject new impetus into the trilateral cooperation and provide better ways towards mutual benefit for the three countries.”

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