Global Politics Special Commentary

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Global Politics Special Commentary
China-Japan-South Korea Trilateral Summit: Key Outcomes and Implications

  Torunika Roy

On 27 May 2024, China, Japan, and South Korea held the Ninth Trilateral Summit in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol, Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, and China's Premier Li Qiang attended the summit. The three nations convened the summit after a hiatus of nearly five years. The last trilateral summit was held in Chengdu, China, in 2019.

The summit was organised for the first time in 2008 in Fukuoka, Japan, where the leaders of three countries agreed to hold regular annual trilateral summits. In 2011, the three countries even launched the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS) in Seoul, for institutionalising the cooperation(Trilateral Cooperation…, n.d.). However, the coronavirus pandemic along with difference of opinions on war-time compensation between Japan and South Korea paused the annual meetings (Bartlett, 2024).

Nevertheless, the looming regional insecurity, strategic competition, and geopolitical necessities led the three countries to resume the annual summit. The summit resulted in the release of two joint statements: Joint Statement on Future Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response and its annex, the Joint Statement on a 10 Year Vision for Trilateral IP Cooperation.

Following are the major outcomes of the trilateral summit.
Cooperation in Six Areas
The official declaration highlighted the need to enhance security, economic cooperation, and cultural exchanges (Boram, 2024). China, Japan, and South Korea decided to work closely on six areas including, people-to-people exchanges, climate change and sustainable development, trade and economy, public health and ageing society, science and technology, and disaster relief and safety. All three countries also mandated the promotion of ‘Trilateral+X Cooperation’ for regional development (Joint Declaration…, 2024).

At the summit, China-Japan-South Korea planned to increase the number of people-to-people exchanges among three countries to 40 million by 2030. The three countries have also decided to designate 2025-2026 as the year of Cultural Exchange.

For climate change, all three committed to end illegal fishing, develop an international legally binding instrument to ban plastic pollution, and transit towards carbon neutrality.

To enhance economic cooperation and trade, the countries agreed to enhance the implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and to speed up negotiations for a Trilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

The countries have also focused on their issue of low fertility rates and ageing society, for which they decided to enhance collaboration by sharing policy expertise.

Under science and technology cooperation, the countries recognised the need to improve Artificial Intelligence (AI) and inculcate it in the global governance. They have also decided to resume the meetings on Disaster Management and Counter-Terrorism.

Through the annex to the official statement, China, Japan, and South Korea agreed to strengthen the three-way cooperation in the IP sector for the next decade (Korean Intellectual Property…, n.d.). The goals of the Trilateral IP Cooperation are to accommodate the fast-changing technologies, to enhance public accessibility and encourage utilisation of patent information by the private sectors, and to expand IP cooperation beyond three countries through the ‘Trilateral + X IP Cooperation’ (Korean Intellectual Property…, n.d.).

The following are major implications for the three countries, and also for others in the region.

For South Korea, it is a delicate balance between China and the US
In November 2023, the three nations’ foreign ministers met for the Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, setting an impetus for resuming the annual China-Japan-South Korea leaders’ summit (Liu et al., 2023). The 2023 meeting came after the historic Japan-South Korea-US Trilateral Summit at Camp David, USA in August 2023.

At the Camp David summit, South Korea received complaints from its biggest trade partner China, who called the summit a ‘mini-NATO’ and a group to weaken China (Xiaoci and Sheng, 2023). Thus, balancing between its economic partner (China) and security alliance (USA) became indispensable for South Korea.

The summit gave an opportunity to South Korea for easing tensions with China and Japan and also fulfil President Yoon’s vision of making Korea a ‘global pivotal state’.Ahead of the summit, South Korea also held bilateral talks with China and came up with plans to hold ‘Korea-China 2+2 Diplomatic and Security Dialogue’(Sun et al., 2024).

For Japan, it is improving communication with South Korea and China
The summit opened a door for Japan to have regular communication with China and South Korea. It set a precedent to improve Japan-South Korea ties for addressing North Korea’s nuclear and abduction issues, along with the USA. Political commentator Masuda Tsuyoshi mentioned that expanding economic cooperation with China and South Korea is significant for Japan. Despite historical animosity, Japan is with South Korea under the liberal bloc.

With China, Japan shares a robust economic relationship but faces diplomatic spats due to North Korea and Taiwan issues. Japan’s colonial history creates volatile relationswith China and Korea, making this summit a hopeful avenue for restoring relations and strengthening the regional security.

For China, it is ensuring that South Korea and Japan do not drift apart
According to Professor Kim Jaechun (Dean of Sogang GSIS), there is a new Cold War in the international order, which comprises of two blocs. Under the bloc of liberalism, there are countries like the USA, Japan, and South Korea, following a rule-based order. Whereas in the bloc of revisionism, countries like China and North Korea revise the existing international order. Due to ideological differences, it would have been difficult for China to sit together with South Korea and Japan. Against this political landscape, the 2024 summit provided a great deal to China, who is already facing a myriad of challenges due to pandemic, US-China trade war, US-led initiatives to weaken China’s role in semiconductor supply chains, Japan and South Korea’s divergence from China in security, economy, and diplomacy, etc. The summit provided an excellent opportunity to China from prevent drifting apart from its neighbour and deepen ties with Japan and South Korea (Nagy, 2024).

For North Korea and the US, the concerns are different
The summit received mixed responses from other key players involved in Northeast Asian security. North Korea, took a jab at China for aligning itself with South Korea-Japan’s plans of denuclearisation and displayed its displeasure with the summit. Hours after the summit, North Korea launched a satellite in violation to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution, which ended in failure. On the other hand, the USA welcomed the ‘renewed’ diplomacy among Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo. Also, on 31 May 2024, South Korea Vice Foreign Minister Kim HyongKyun, Japan’s Vice Foreign Minister Masataka Okano, and US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell met in Washington, USA, where they condemned North Korea’s satellite launch (The Korea Times, 2024).

To conclude…
The 2024 Trilateral Summit is a notable achievement of three countries (China-Japan-South Korea) for restoring the trilateral cooperation and adopting a common approach in addressing security concerns. However, due to conflicting interests of parties, this summit may fail short of what it has promised. For example, China, aligned with the revisionist bloc, is expected to oppose the UNSC sanctions on North Korea. Whereas Japan and South Korea may overcome their issues and work closely with the USA due to their common threats such as Russia’s growing ties with China and North Korea, Russia-Ukraine War, etc. If such divergences are not addressed, the significance of the summit may diminish over time. Nevertheless, the summit should be commended for marking progress in bringing China, Japan, and South Korea to the same table. Relations among these countries are marked by suspicion and historical wounds. Thus, the trilateral summit stands out for reducing friction and setting the stage for more significant changes in future.

References
Bartlett D, “ With trilateral summit, China, Japan, South Korea look for a reset,” The Diplomat, 01 June 2024

Deng, X., & Yang, S., “Camp David summit serves as hypocritical anti-China pantomime with a “mini-NATO” in the making: analysts,” Global Times, 20 August 2023
Joint Declaration of the Ninth ROK-Japan-China Trilateral Summit,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan

Lee, M. Y. H., “China attempts to counter Japan and South Korea’s closer ties with U.S.,” Washington Post, 27 May 2024

Liu, X., Hui, K., & Hui, K., “China, Japan, South Korea to resume trilateral leaders’ summit,Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, 04 December 2024

Nagy, S. R.,“ Lessons from the Japan-South Korea-China summit,” The Japan Times, 30 May 2024

S. Korea, US, Japan condemn NK launches, reaffirm peninsula denuclearization goal,” Korea Times, 01 June 2024

Sun, Y., Tatsumi, Y., & Town, J., “Takeaways from the China-Japan-South Korea Trilateral


About the author

Torunika Roy is a PhD Scholar, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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