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Can China, Japan, and South Korea just get along?

Can China, Japan, and South Korea just get along?

In their first trilateral summit since 2019, the three nation's leaders did not address North Korea or Taiwan. But both were in the room.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and Chinese Premier Li Qiang met in Seoul for a trilateral summit this Monday, agreeing to promote positive regional cooperation between the countries. However, it also revealed real shortcomings and challenges to their engagement.

The summit was notable just for taking place. The last time South Korea, Japan, and China held a trilateral leadership summit was in 2019. The outbreak of coronavirus initially got in the way, and heightened tensions over regional security issues — including advances in North Korea’s missile and nuclear program and increasing confrontation over Taiwan — also presumably served to delay agreement to meet again by aggravating the political atmosphere and complicating agenda-setting.

At this week’s convocation, the three governments committed themselves to improving communications through regular summits and deepening cooperation on trade, cultural exchanges, and non-traditional security issues like climate change, natural disaster relief, and public health. They also agreed to resume their trilateral free trade agreement negotiations, which started in 2012 and have yet to be finalized.

Nevertheless, it is uncertain how long this momentum for engagement will last. Over the years, geopolitical tensions have often gotten in the way. Summits were skipped in 2013 and 2014 as then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine that honors Japanese World War II leaders fueled anti-Japan sentiments in both South Korea and China. In 2016 and 2017, the dispute between South Korea and China over the former’s decision to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system, or THAAD, on its territory, as well as bilateral tensions between Japan and China over historical and territorial issues, negatively affected trilateral engagement.

Sources of friction between China, South Korea, and Japan persist. While South Korea and Japan have pushed for harsher sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations Security Council, China has become more skeptical about the effectiveness of economic pressure and has refused to go along with more sanctions.

Meanwhile, Seoul and Tokyo have expanded their military cooperation with the U.S. to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear threats and enhance their defensive capabilities in the face of Beijing’s own military buildup. At the same time, Beijing believes the growing military cooperation between the U.S., South Korea, and Japan provokes North Korean aggression and is driven by hostile intentions to contain and suppress China.

Monday’s summit reflected these tensions and differences in the security realm between China and the two U.S. allies.

Regarding the North Korean nuclear issue, the discussion failed to go beyond the rote repetition of their different positions. While the South Korean and Japanese sides condemned North Korea and emphasized the need to pressure it toward eventual denuclearization, China stressed the need to de-escalate military tensions and advance a political settlement on the Korean peninsula without mentioning denuclearization.

The summit’s joint statement fell short of presenting a collective stance on North Korea, merely stating that the three sides reiterated each other’s positions. This marked a retreat from the 2019 version, which clearly confirmed that “we are committed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

The Taiwan issue did not appear in individual talking points or in the joint statement, but it was brought up during separate South Korea-China and Japan-China bilateral meetings prior to the trilateral summit. Similar to the North Korean nuclear issue, differences prevailed. In his respective meetings with President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida, Chinese Premier Li reportedly demanded their adherence to Beijing’s position that there is only “One China.”

Yoon reportedly reaffirmed South Korea’s longstanding position on “One China,” but that statement was omitted from the official South Korean readout. Kishida reportedly confirmed Japan’s position without directly citing “One China” by reaffirming the 1972 Japan-China normalization agreement. Nevertheless, Kishida’s statement was also excluded from the Japanese readout.

Overall, the three sides’ exchanges concerning North Korea and Taiwan seemingly did little to ease the pessimism that preceded the summit and appeared to confirm that recent trends favoring confrontation between China and its two northeast Asian neighbors remain strong. Beijing’s ambiguous position on North Korea gives Seoul and Tokyo more reasons to view China as an unreliable actor and thus to cooperate more closely with U.S. geopolitical and security arrangements.

Similarly, South Korea and Japan’s reluctance to confirm their commitment to their respective “One China” policies, coupled with their hardening stances on the Taiwan issue and deepening military alliances with the U.S., can feed into Beijing’s suspicions that they have bought into a U.S.-designed containment strategy and thus provoke a more hardline Chinese regional approach. Continued reinforcement of pessimism regarding the incompatibility of China’s security interests with those of Japan and South Korea can be a recipe for regional polarization and mutually exclusive security bloc formation.

One prominent South Korean expert who closely advises the Yoon administration reacted optimistically to Monday’s summit, suggesting it was a “pivotal step” to restore mutual trust among the three countries and can serve as a “platform” to mitigate regional tensions and prevent the fault lines between China and the U.S. from widening. But that may prove wishful thinking. Although the resumption of trilateral summitry and economic and people-to-people engagement between the three countries could help relieve some tensions, promoting durable regional stability and peaceful coexistence will be difficult without alleviating the worsening regional security environment through mutual reassurance and accommodation.

For their part, South Korea and Japan should give careful thought to whether they are doing enough — both individually as well as collectively with the U.S. — to incentivize a more conciliatory and cooperative Chinese military and diplomatic policy. Given China’s suspicion about how the U.S. and its regional allies might be embarked on a strategy designed to ensure Taiwan’s permanent separation, reassuring Beijing about the Taiwan issue may be especially necessary.

For its part, China should likewise pursue policies that reassure and incentivize South Korea and Japan. Even though Beijing disagrees with Seoul and Tokyo’s current approach to North Korea, it can still play a positive role as a mitigator by more proactively leveraging its communication channels and commercial ties with Pyongyang to constrain its behavior. Being an indifferent bystander would only reduce China’s influence over South Korea and Japan and risk encouraging, even if unintentionally, more assertive North Korean provocations.

Beijing may understandably be concerned that cooperating in a pressure campaign against Pyongyang would damage its bilateral relationship and reduce its influence with the North. The U.S., South Korea, and Japan could be well advised to consider using more carrots than the sticks they have largely relied on to date in trying to persuade China to cooperate more with their efforts to constrain Pyongyang.

Of course, given the strong suspicions that characterize relations between China, on the one hand, and the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, on the other, promoting detente, mutual accommodation, and greater security cooperation will not be easy. But it may be the only viable way to steer Northeast Asia away from an eventual collision whose consequences would be felt far beyond the region.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Chinese Premier Li Qiang attend the business summit at the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry on May 27, 2024 in Seoul, South Korea. Chung Sung-Jun/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

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