Chinese and Japanese leaders travel to South Korea for their first trilateral meeting since 2019

Chinese and Japanese leaders were set to arrive in Seoul and meet with South Korea's president separately on Sunday, a day before they gather for their first trilateral meeting in more than four years.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Chinese Premier Li Qiang (center) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Chinese Premier Li Qiang (center) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida

Seoul | Chinese and Japanese leaders were set to arrive in Seoul and meet with South Korea's president separately on Sunday, a day before they gather for their first trilateral meeting in more than four years.

No major announcement is expected from Monday's trilateral South Korea-China-Japan meeting. But just resuming their highest-level, three-way talks is a good sign and suggests the three Asian neighbours are intent on improving their relations.

A trilateral leaders' meeting was supposed to take place annually following their inaugural gathering in 2008. But the meeting has stalled since the last one in December 2019 in Chengdu, China because of the COVID-19 pandemic and complex ties among the three countries.

After their arrivals in Seoul on Sunday, Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are to hold bilateral talks with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to discuss ways to promote cooperation and other issues, according to South Korean officials. Li and Kishida are expected to meet bilaterally as well.

When Yoon, Li and Kishida meet for a trilateral session on Monday, they'll discuss cooperation in six specific areas — people-to-people exchanges, climate change, trade, health issues, technology and disaster responses, according to South Korea's presidential office.

Sensitive topics like North Korea's nuclear program, China's claim over self-governed Taiwan and territorial disputes in the South China Sea are not among the official agenda items. But some experts say North Korea's nuclear program — which poses a major security threat to South Korea and Japan — will likely be discussed among the three leaders though it's unclear whether and how much they would publicise the contents of their discussions.

The three neighbours are important trading partners to one another, and their cooperation is key to promoting regional peace and prosperity. But they've been repeatedly embroiled in bitter disputes over a range of historical and diplomatic issues originating from Japan's wartime atrocities. China's rise and a US push reinforce its Asian alliances have also significantly impacted their three-way ties in recent years.

South Korea and Japan are both vibrant democracies and key US military allies in the region, but their ties in past years suffered a huge setback over the issue of Korean forced labourers during the 1910-45 Japanese colonial period. Bilateral ties have warmed dramatically since last year, when Yoon took a major step toward moving beyond historical grievances to cope with shared challenges like North Korean nuclear threats, the intensifying Chinese-US rivalry and supply chain vulnerabilities.

Since 2022, North Korea has been engaged in an unprecedentedly provocative run of weapons tests to build powerful nuclear missiles capable of hitting key sites in the mainland US, South Korea and Japan. In response, South Korea, Japan and the US have expanded their trilateral security partnership, but that has drawn rebukes from China and North Korea.

South Korea, Japan and the US want China — North Korea's major ally and economic pipeline — to use its leverage to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions. But China is believed to have clandestinely supported the impoverished North.

Experts say South Korea, China and Japan now share a need to improve ties. South Korea and Japan want better ties with China because it is their biggest trading partner. China, for its part, likely believes a further strengthening of the South Korea-Japan-US cooperation would hurt its national interests.

“With complex changes unfolding in our region and beyond, we hope that the forthcoming summit meeting will inject new impetus into the trilateral cooperation and provide better ways towards mutual benefit for the three countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Thursday.

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