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It's Time for China to Get Serious on Peace

The leaders of South Korea and Japan have asked Premier Li Qiang of China to stop stoking aggression by an emboldened Kim Jong Un and North Korea.

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The Japan-China-South Korea summit was held in Seoul, South Korea on May 27. (Pool photo)

The President of South Korea has appealed to China to serve as a "bastion of peace" in Asia. Yoon Suk Yeol made his appeal directly to the Chinese Premier Li Qiang in Seoul. He emphasized China's responsibilities as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

At present, South Korea and Japan serve as non-permanent members of that group. This gives them less weight than China, which can veto resolutions, and usually sides with Russia on contentious issues such as the war in Ukraine and the situation in the Middle East.

President Yoon Suk-yeol said he wants the East Asian nations to work together "for the sake of the peace and prosperity of the international community".

However, as the Korea Times notes in an editorial, China's deepening alignment with North Korea is a troubling development for the government of the South. It is also a major concern for Japan's Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida. He met with Premier Li and President Yoon in Seoul. Each of the leaders held bilateral talks on Sunday, before joining a trilateral meeting on Monday.

Footage (from left to right) of the explosion of a rocket North Korea claims was launched carrying a reconnaissance satellite. Video taken by a South Korean naval vessel deployed to an island region in northwestern South Korea on May 27. (Provided by the South Korean defense ministry)

Alarm Call 

The severe threat posed by North Korea was evident at the start of this week. An emergency warning was issued for residents in the south of Japan to take cover from a possible North Korean missile. People living in the prefecture of Okinawa were advised to take shelter in concrete buildings.

The alert was sparked when North Korea attempted to use a rocket to launch a spy satellite into space. The mission failed when the rocket exploded, sending debris falling to the ground.

The governments of South Korea and Japan condemned the action. US Indo-Pacific Command described it as a "brazen violation" of multiple UN Security Council resolutions. "This raises tensions and risks destabilizing the security situation in the region and beyond," the command said in a statement, adding that it was in close coordination with allies and partners.

Provocative Acts

There is nothing to suggest that the failure of the launch this week will stop further provocative acts by North Korea. Indeed, its leader Kim Jong Un appears to have been emboldened by recent endorsements of his regime by both Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

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In April, Xi dispatched a senior official to Pyongyang to reassert China's "deep friendship" with North Korea. And the Financial Times reports that the Russian president may pay a visit to Pyongyang soon. Kim visited Russia in September 2023. Other sources say that Xi Jinping may also go to North Korea this year. 

Russia has no qualms about ignoring UN resolutions to help North Korea with its space program. The South Korean news agency Yonhap claims that a "large number" of Russian experts entered North Korea ahead of the satellite launch on Monday. 

Prime Minister Kishida, South Korean President Yoonl, and Chinese Premier Li Qiang arrive for a joint press conference following the Japan-China-South Korea summit in Seoul on May 27. (Pool photo via Kyodo)

Blunt Speaking

Fumio Kishida's encounter with Li Qiang during their bilateral meeting on Sunday highlighted the many disagreements between Japan and China.

Mr Kishida reiterated his demand that Beijing lift the blanket ban on Japanese seafood imports. The Chinese ban was imposed after treated water from the Fukushima plant was released into the Pacific Ocean in 2023.

Numerous tests have shown that the discharges are not contaminating the sea, nor causing any health risks.

On May 24, a large screen in Beijing shows news about military exercises conducted by the Chinese military around Taiwan. (©Kyodo)

Talking about Taiwan

The Taiwan issue was also raised.

China's People's Liberation Army has been conducting intense military exercises around the island since the inauguration of President Lai Ching-te. China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and threatens to attack it in a bid to bring it under mainland control. 

"I stressed that peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait are extremely important for Japan and the international community. Meanwhile, [I conveyed] that we are closely monitoring recent developments, including the military situation there," Mr Kishida told reporters.

In contrast to the difficult meeting with Premier Li, the two-way encounter between Prime Minister Kishida and President Yoon was a much more upbeat event. It was characterized by pledges to further bolster cooperation and to address global challenges.

The two leaders spoke of a "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests." Mr Yoon chose not to mention the water from Fukushima. He recognized that China has used the issue to stir up negativity towards Japan.

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Prime Minister Kishida speaks at a joint press conference following the Japan-China-South Korea summit on May 27. (Pool photo).

Side-stepping Contention

The agenda for the three-way summit involving China, Japan, and South Korea omitted any mention of North Korea or Taiwan. Instead, it focussed on less contentious issues, such as academic and tourism exchanges, as well as cooperation on climate change. This led Li Qiang to claim that he foresees "both a restart and a new beginning" in relations between the Asian countries.

The three leaders agreed to meet on an annual basis. 

Meanwhile, PM Kishida and South Korea's President Yoon are due to meet again in July. They will join the sidelines of a NATO summit in Washington. 

That is an event that will spotlight the serious threats to global security posed by China, North Korea, and Russia. 

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Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent

Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his other articles and essays.