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The Trilateral Summit: What's Next for Japan-China-South Korea Talks

The Japan, South Korea and China trilateral summit was a good chance to talk but long-term progress is tempered by strains on Taiwan, trade, and other issues.



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

Japan, China, and South Korea recently held their ninth trilateral summit in Seoul, South Korea on May 27, 2024. It came after a long hiatus of more than 4 years. Their preceding meeting was held before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Chengdu, China in December 2019.

A joint declaration was issued at the end of this summit. It noted that the three countries would "identify and implement mutually-beneficial cooperation projects centered on six key areas closely related to the everyday lives of the peoples: people-to-people exchanges; sustainable development including through climate change response; economic cooperation and trade; public health and aging society; science and technology cooperation, digital transformation; and disaster relief and safety."

Prime Minister Kishida, South Korean President Yoon, 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)

Issues at Play

While the trilateral summit is no doubt a notable development, there are several issues at play here.  They include China's support for North Korea, which has allowed Pyongyang to behave with extreme belligerence in its immediate neighborhood.

Furthermore, China has recently conducted large-scale military exercises around Taiwan to show its displeasure at the election of Lai Ching-te, Taiwan's new president.  Beijing has also been weighing its options in case Donald Trump is reelected president of the United States. The Biden Administration has been piling pressure on China. However, things could get even more difficult for China under a Trump Administration.

In addition, there are many issues between Japan and China over their troubled history and these could once again crop up. Currently, those troubles are also focused on the Senkaku Islands in southwest Japan, which the Chinese now claim.   

One positive note was the Kishida-Yoon bilateral meeting held on the summit's sidelines, which took note of the warming ties. Japan and South Korea will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the normalization of their bilateral relations in 2025.

Prime Minister Kishida and President Biden shake hands at a welcome ceremony at the White House before the summit meeting on April 10, 2024. (© Kyodo)

Situation In Flux

There seems to be a lot of flux in the region. Japanese PM Fumio Kishida was in the US earlier this year for a bilateral summit. At this summit, he noted that Japan is ready to be a global partner of the US.  

On the other hand, Tokyo's predicament is that it needs Beijing's help when it comes to reaching out to North Korea. At the same time, China has been backing North Korea at international forums, especially at the United Nations. This is a perfect case of someone running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.

Also, the three countries are working towards a free trade agreement (FTA).  But that is easier said than done. Japan is a part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership known as the CPTPP but China is not.  

China's Eastern Theater Command released an image of a Chinese military missile launcher vehicle involved in its Taiwan-related military exercise on Weibo on May 24. (©Kyodo)

Can China Be Trusted?

The moot question here is whether China can be trusted.

This seems difficult, given a host of circumstances and China's past behavior.  Beijing has displayed belligerent behavior towards a host of countries and used Chinese tourists as a weapon.  

Japan has already been increasing its military spending. It will go up to 2% of its GDP, which was unthinkable in the past. Also, Tokyo has been working towards modernizing its helicopter carriers like the JS Izumo and Kaga. The modifications will allow them to host fighter aircraft like the F-35B Lightning II jets.

Beyond defense spending, however, Japan needs to reduce its dependence on China on the trade front. Right now, China is Japan's biggest trading partner. While that is okay on the economic front, it is a recipe for disaster on the strategic front.

In the case of tensions on the political front, China has the leverage to pull the plug on its trading relations with other countries. If it does, Japan could suffer. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had already talked about moving supply chains away from China. However, while diversification has started, it is yet to fructify. In addition, the G7 leaders noted about de-risking from China in their 2023 communique. However, that is easier said than done.

China and South Korea are two of Tokyo's leading trade partners in the region. However, on the strategic front, what matters most is its alliance with the United States. Hence, Japan will have to play its cards very well when it comes to trade issues. 

A Japan Coast Guard patrol vessel closely shadows a China Coast Guard ship (right), maintaining tight surveillance and protecting the Japanese research vessel off the Senkaku Islands, Ishigaki City in Okinawa. April 27, 2024, at 8:29 AM (© Sankei by Naoki Otake)

Managing China's Roadblocks

One obstacle to an FTA is China itself. It would be unfathomable for Japan to start talks on an FTA while China still has a ban on the import of Japanese seafood.  Moreover, Japan, China, and South Korea are already a part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP. Therefore, there may not be a clear incentive for a separate FTA between the three countries. 

One reason for China's recent eagerness to negotiate an FTA is its moribund domestic economy, which it wants to revive. Countries across the world are trying to "de-risk" by diversifying their supply chains, which is impacting the Chinese economy. Hence now is not the most appropriate time for talks with China.  

The trilateral summit was no doubt a good start. However, Tokyo must watch out for China's propensity to send conflicting signals in its own selfish interest.


Author: Dr Rupakjyoti Borah

Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. The views expressed here are personal.