Security Tensions Overshadow First Japan-China-Korea Summit since 2019


On May 27, the leaders of Japan, China, and South Korea met in Seoul for the first trilateral summit in five years, producing a joint declaration on enhanced cooperation. But divisions pitted Beijing against Seoul and Tokyo, foreshadowing difficulties for Japan when it chairs the next gathering.

A Welcome Gathering, but Divisions Remain

The ROK-Japan-China Trilateral Summit was established in 2008 as a framework for mutually beneficial cooperation among Japan, China, and the Republic of Korea. Supported by a Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat established in 2011, meetings between the leaders of the three countries were supposed to be held annually. However, around 2018 relations between Japan and South Korea plunged to a postwar low amid conflict over the issues of the comfort women and wartime forced labor. The last summit was held in Chengdu, China, in December 2019, immediately prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, even as the pandemic subsided, there seemed to be little political will to restart meetings.

Therefore, at the first summit in half a decade, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, Chinese Premier Li Qiang, and Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol were eager to emphasize the need for “future-oriented practical cooperation” and hopes for the revitalization of the Trilateral Process. At the first summit for these three leaders, they displayed a clear desire to demonstrate to their own citizens and regional observers a will to forge constructive relations.

In addition to the holding regular meetings to further the “institutionalization” of trilateral cooperation, the summit’s joint declaration also specified six major areas for enhanced cooperation, including “sustainable development through climate change response” and “people-to-people exchanges.” On the latter, the joint declaration notes an ambition to increase “people-to-people exchanges among the three countries to 40 million by 2030 through promoting exchange including culture, tourism and education.”

The three leaders also agreed to “discussions for speeding up negotiations for a Trilateral FTA” to build off the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement that came into effect in 2022. The combined GDP of the three nations currently accounts for more than 20% of world GDP. Given its current economic problems, China sees great merit in expanding trade with Japan and South Korea by reaching an early agreement on a “free, fair, comprehensive, high-quality, and mutually beneficial FTA.”

The day before the Trilateral Summit, China and South Korea held their own bilateral summit and announced new initiatives. Premier Li secured agreement to establish a South Korea–China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, and the two sides agreed to a South Korea–China Export Control Dialogue to serve as a communication channel for strengthening supply chain cooperation. Seoul and Beijing also agreed to resume negotiations on the second phase of a bilateral FTA to build on the original one that took effect in 2015. This represented a bold attempt by Beijing to pull South Korea out of its current strong alignment with Japan and the United States on geopolitical issues.

A Transformed Regional Security Approach

Changes in the regional and global security environment since the last Trilateral Summit have been significant. In addition to the Ukraine war and North Korea’s greatly enhanced nuclear and missile programs, the May 2022 inauguration of the Yoon administration in South Korea has had a substantial impact.

For example, at the historic Japan-US-ROK trilateral summit at Camp David in August 2023, the leaders of the three countries promised to “strengthen strategic coordination” between the US-Japan and US-ROK alliances. This is a dramatic break with previous South Korean administrations, which tilted toward Beijing in addressing North Korean issues. President Yoon has also dealt with the issue of wartime forced laborers that precipitated the deterioration of relations between Seoul and Tokyo in 2018. With Seoul also increasingly focused on “deterrence against China” in its security policy, President Yoon has laid the groundwork for a dramatically improved Japan-ROK relationship.

By contrast, in the past it was not uncommon in trilateral relations to see China and South Korea cooperating to diplomatically pressure Japan. For example, Beijing joined with Seoul to condemn Tokyo’s approach to the comfort women and wartime forced labor issue. The improved relationship between Tokyo and Seoul since the inauguration of the Yoon administration was ultimately reflected in Japan’s 2024 Diplomatic Bluebook, which for the first time in 14 years described South Korea as an “important neighbor with which Japan should cooperate with as a partner.” In the security domain at least, President Yoon’s approach has resulted in significantly changed dynamics.

The Divide over North Korea

The altered security dynamics are symbolized by the North Korean issue. On the morning of the Trilateral Summit itself, North Korea suddenly announced the launch of a “satellite.” Although the launch ended in failure, it was clear that Pyongyang wanted to interrupt the summit and force itself onto the agenda.

Prime Minister Kishida and President Yoon quickly condemned the launch as “a violation” of United Nations Security Council resolutions. However, Premier Li refused to even mention the launch, simply saying that international society should avoid becoming divided into “camps.” The resulting joint declaration mentioned the importance of peace on the Korean Peninsula, but disappointingly only went as far as saying each side “reiterated positions on regional peace and stability.” This is in stark contrast with the 2019 Trilateral Summit, where the joint statement stressed the importance of “complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula” in accordance with UN resolutions.

As North Korea pushes ahead with its nuclear and missile programs, it is also deepening its military cooperation with Russia. Last summer, North Korea even provided missiles and ammunition to Russia, which have subsequently been used in the invasion of Ukraine. North Korea’s disruptive and dangerous geopolitical impact is increasingly expanding beyond East Asia. As Beijing has a measure of influence in Pyongyang, this development could negatively affect China’s international reputation as a responsible power unless some way can be found to restrain North Korea.

No Resolution for Pressing Issues

Prime Minister Kishida also held bilateral talks with Premier Li on the sidelines of the Trilateral Summit. No discernible progress, however, was made on the “bilateral issues of concern” in Japan-China relations, such as the ban on Japanese marine products following the discharge of ALPS-treated water from TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. China also refused to budge on such issues as the immediate removal of a buoy placed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone near the Senkaku Islands and the early release of Japanese nationals detained in China.

Although the Trilateral Summit appeared to herald the resumption of “the trilateral process”, it ultimately failed to cover up the major divisions on security and geopolitical issues. Some media outlets have pointed to the “Camp David Effect” as having altered the dynamics of the Trilateral Summit compared to 2019. The strengthened cooperation among the United States, Japan, and South Korea, both bilaterally and in their own trilateral format, appears to be weighing on Beijing.

China is keeping a close eye on the US presidential election this fall and looking for opportunities to drive a diplomatic wedge between the three countries to disrupt their cooperation. With Japan due to chair the next trilateral summit, Tokyo faces an uphill battle to foster a “Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests” with Beijing while pursuing deepened cooperation with Seoul and Washington.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 31, 2024. Banner photo: from left, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol, and Chinese Premier Li Qiang attend a joint press conference at Cheong Wa Dae, the Blue House, in Seoul, South Korea, on May 27, 2024. © Jiji.)

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