Leaders of South Korea, China and Japan to resume trilateral meeting to revive cooperation

Leaders of South Korea, China and Japan were set to meet Monday for their first trilateral meeting in more than four years as they seek to improve long-complicated relations that are key to regional peace.
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 | Leaders of South Korea, China and Japan were set to meet Monday for their first trilateral meeting in more than four years as they seek to improve long-complicated relations that are key to regional peace.

No major breakthrough was expected during the gathering in Seoul. But experts said just restarting the countries' highest-level annual meeting was a positive sign for cooperation among the three Northeast Asian neighbours.

On the eve of the meeting, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had rounds of bilateral meetings among themselves to discuss how to boost economic and other cooperation.

But some thorny topics were also brought up, like North Korea, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

After meeting with Li, Kishida told reporters that he expressed serious concerns about the situations in the South China Sea, Hong Kong and China's northwestern Xinjiang region. He said Japan was closely monitoring developments on self-governed Taiwan as well.

Kishida referred to China's military assertiveness in the South China Sea, clampdowns on pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and human rights abuses against minorities in Xinjiang. Last week, China also launched a large military exercise around Taiwan to show its anger over the inauguration of the island's new president who refuses to accept its insistence that Taiwan is part of China.

When Yoon met with Li separately Sunday, he spoke about North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons and its deepening military ties with Russia, and he asked China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to contribute to promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula, according to Yoon's office.

South Korea, Japan and the US have long urged 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 suspected of avoiding fully implementing UN sanctions on North Korea and sending clandestine aid shipments to its impoverished, sociality neighbor.

In a development that could further raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Japan's coast guard said Monday that North Korea informed it of a plan to launch a satellite by early next week, a likely reference to the North's push to place its second military spy satellite. North Korea has said it needs spy satellites to better monitor South Korea and the United States and improve the precision-striking capabilities of its missiles.

The sensitive China-involving topics aren't on the official agendas at Monday's meeting. Officials in South Korea, the host of the meeting, said a joint statement after Monday's trilateral meeting would cover the leaders' discussion on cooperation in areas like people-to-people exchanges, climate change, trade, health issues, technology and disaster responses.

The three Asian nations together represent about 25 per cent of global gross domestic product, and they are closely linked to one another economically and culturally. But their relations have suffered on-again, off-again setbacks owing to issues stemming from Japan's wartime aggression. China's ambitions of greater global influence and a US push to beef up its Asian alliances have also threatened to hurt ties among the three Asian countries.

South Korea and Japan are both key US allies in the region. Their moves to bolster their trilateral security partnership with the United States have drawn rebukes from China.

The China-South Korea-Japan trilateral meeting was supposed to happen annually following their first meeting in 2008. But the sessions stalled since the last one in December 2019 in Chengdu, China because of the COVID-19 pandemic and complex ties among the three countries.

Experts say the three countries all want better relations. China is the biggest trading partner for both South Korea and Japan. Analysts say China likely thinks any further strengthening of the South Korea-Japan-US security ties would not serve its national interests.

China has always sent its premier, the country's No. 2 official, to the trilateral leaders' meeting since its first session in 2008. Observers say China earlier argued that under its then-collective leadership, its premier was chiefly in charge of economic affairs and best suited to attend the meeting, which largely focuses on economic issues.

But they say China may face more demands for President Xi Jinping to attend because he has concentrated power in his hands and defied the norms of collective leadership.

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