Resumption of trilateral summit first step towards mending South Korea and China ties

The summit was last held in December 2019 in Chengdu, after which it was suspended following a dispute between South Korea and Japan over forced labour compensation rulings and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Wendy Teo

Wendy Teo

The Straits Times


Japan’s Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Takehiro Funakoshi (top left table, centre), South Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Chung Byung-won (right table) and China’s Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Nong Rong (foreground, centre) meeting in Seoul on Sept 26. PHOTO: EPA-EFE/THE STRAITS TIMES

September 27, 2023

SEOUL – Senior diplomats from China, Japan and South Korea have agreed that their leaders should meet at the “earliest convenient time”, in what is viewed as a positive step towards defrosting ties between Beijing and Seoul.

South Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Chung Byung-won discussed the resumption of the trilateral summit with Japan’s Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Takehiro Funakoshi and China’s Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Nong Rong in a four-hour meeting in Seoul on Tuesday.

No dates were specified, but they agreed that their foreign ministers would “promptly convene” a meeting to prepare for the summit, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Seoul also proposed six key areas of focus for the potential summit, including cooperation in people-to-people exchanges, science and technology, and security.

The summit was last held in December 2019 in Chengdu, after which it was suspended following a dispute between South Korea and Japan over forced labour compensation rulings and the Covid-19 pandemic.

South Korea is hoping to score a diplomatic coup by reviving the summit – which would involve Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida – and subsequently hosting a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Mr Xi reportedly told South Korea’s Prime Minister Han Duck-soo during a meeting in Hangzhou last weekend that he would “seriously consider” a visit to Seoul.

The visit – Mr Xi’s first to South Korea since 2014 – would be a “turning point in Korea-China relations”, said South Korea’s National Security Adviser Cho Tae-young. It is also expected to officially end the dispute between the two countries over South Korea’s deployment of an American anti-missile shield in 2017.

Sceptical observers, however, question if China will exert pressure on South Korea and demand certain concessions in exchange for Mr Xi’s visit.

Just months ago in May, China had warned that bilateral cooperation would be impossible if South Korea touches its core interests such as the “one China” principle, or if South Korea moves toward a pro-United States, pro-Japan, unilateral foreign policy.

Ties have been strained since South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May 2022, moved to align more closely with security ally US. In May, he ruffled feathers in Beijing when he appeared to dismiss the “one China” principle in an interview ahead of his state visit to Washington.

In August, China called a US-Japan-South Korea summit held at Camp David a “hypocritical anti-China pantomime” and accused the three countries of forming a “mini-Nato”.

China Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in a phone exchange with his South Korean counterpart Park Jin in late August, hinted that their nations’ bilateral relations should not be influenced by a third party.

He expressed hope that South Korea will reject anti-globalisation manoeuvres and attempts to decouple or sever industrial and supply chains.

Even if differences remain, analysts said the trilateral summit would still be a good first step in the warming of ties between South Korea and China.

Sogang University political science professor Kim Jae-chun said there will be no dramatic turnaround in bilateral relations. The earlier tensions were due to both Mr Xi and Mr Yoon “overplaying their hands” and it is now in their mutual interests to mend fences, he added.

Mr Yoon got the ball rolling earlier in September during a Cabinet meeting, when he committed to reviving and hosting the trilateral summit with Japan and China by the end of 2023.

While bilateral meetings would be trickier to conduct in the current atmosphere of mistrust, Prof Kim said the trilateral summit provides a good starting point. If trilateral discussions go well, then it paves the way for South Korea and China to move things forward bilaterally.

“It is a step that you need to take because you can’t just let it be,” he said. “You have got to do something to rescue the relationship. So, I think the smartest way is to utilise this trilateral summit to do so.”

Seoul National University law professor Lee Jae-min sees the trilateral summit as an effective and productive platform for the three neighbouring countries with such close economic ties to come together to discuss the many intersecting bilateral issues.

“The problems are so complicated historically, culturally, economically and militarily. On some issues, they have very different views. But at least if they can meet, then they can discuss some of the issues instead of not talking to each other at all,” he told ST.

Both do not believe that China expects South Korea – or Japan, for that matter – to concede their existing alliance with the US in any way.

Prof Lee said: “China now understands what Korea can do with respect to some sensitive issues, including global supply chain issues, or semiconductors, and its commitments made at the Camp David trilateral summit.”

He believes that within those boundaries still lie “many things that Korea can cooperate with China, and China can cooperate with Korea”.

But one area of cooperation that may not work out would be North Korea. China has so far maintained its distance from the recent cosying of ties between North Korea and Russia, following a rare summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier in September.

Prof Kim said: “The strategic value of North Korea looms larger than before. But you don’t want to estrange North Korea or put too much pressure on it into giving up nuclear weapons. I think that is the reason China has pretty much given the ‘okay’ sign to North Korea’s missile provocations.

“I don’t think China will exercise its leverage on North Korea. I don’t even know whether China has that leverage because North Korea doesn’t listen.”

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