South Korea, Japan and China agree to resume trilateral leaders’ summit, but without specific date

An annual trilateral summit among the leaders of the three countries hasn’t been held since 2019

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, center, and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, center, and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa pose for a photo prior to the trilateral foreign ministers' meeting in Busan, South Korea, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023.Ahn Young-joon (AP)

Meeting for the first time in about four years, the top diplomats from South Korea, Japan and China agreed Sunday to revive cooperation among the Asian neighbors and resume their leaders’ trilateral summit — but without a specific timing.

Closely linked economically and culturally with one another, the three countries together account for about 25% of the global gross domestic product. But efforts to boost cooperation have often hit a snag because of a mix of issues including historical disputes stemming from Japan’s wartime aggression and the strategic competition between China and the United States.

“We three ministers agreed to restore and normalize three-nation cooperation at an early date,” South Korean Foreign Minister told reporters after his meeting with Japan’s Yoko Kamikawa and China’s Wang Yi in Busan, South Korea.

Park said the three ministers affirmed an earlier agreement by lower-level officials to restart the summit “at the earliest mutually convenient time” and agreed to expedite preparations for the meeting. Kamikawa separately said the ministers agreed to speed up their work to achieve the summit “at an early and appropriate timing.”

The three also agreed to push for diverse cooperation projects in areas such as people-to-people exchange, trade, technology, public health, sustainable development and security, according to South Korean and Japanese statements.

The lack of an agreement on the timing for the trilateral summit would suggest the top-level gathering won’t likely happen this year as South Korea, the chair of the next summit, had hoped, observers say. Still, Kamikawa said that a reactivation of a trilateral diplomacy “is an important step toward achieving an upcoming Japan-China-South Korea summit.”

Since they held their first stand-alone, trilateral summit in 2008, the leaders of the three countries were supposed to meet annually. Instead, the summit has been suspended since 2019. The meeting Sunday was also the first since 2019.

South Korea and Japan are key U.S. military allies, hosting a total of 80,000 American troops on their territories. Their recent push to beef up a trilateral security cooperation with the United States has angered China, which is extremely sensitive to any moves it perceives as seeking to contain its rise to dominance in Asia.

But some observers say that the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden struck a conciliatory tone in their first face-to-face meeting in a year earlier this month would provide Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing with diplomatic rooms to maneuver to find ways to revive three-way cooperation.

After her meeting with Wang on Saturday, Kamikawa said she renewed Japan’s demand that China remove its ban on seafood imports from Japan in response to Tokyo’s discharge of treated radioactive wastewater from its tsunami-hit nuclear power plant. Wang, for his part, said China opposed Japan’s “irresponsible action” of releasing the wastewater and called for an independent monitoring mechanism of the process, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Ties between South Korea and Japan deteriorated severely in past years due to issues originating from Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula. But their relations have warmed significantly in recent months as the two countries took a series of major steps to move beyond history wrangling and boost cooperation in the face of North Korea’s advancing nuclear program and other shared challenges.

In a reminder of their difficult relations, however, a Seoul court earlier this week ordered Japan to financially compensate Koreans forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops during the colonial period.

During her meeting with Park earlier Sunday, Kamikawa called the court verdict “extremely regrettable” and urged South Korea to take appropriate steps to remedy the breaches of international law, according to Japan’s Consulate in Busan. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the ministers discussed the court ruling as well as ways to work together to reinvigorate three-way cooperation with China. The ministry also said that both strongly condemned the North’s spy satellite launch last week.

Park also asked Wang for China to play a constructive role in persuading North Korea to halt provocations and take steps toward denuclearization, according to South Korea’s Foreign Ministry.

Wang described China as “a stabilizing force” in the region that has “always played and will continue to play a constructive role in easing the situation on the peninsula,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. It said Wang called for stronger trade and economic ties between the two countries and criticized the “tendency to politicize economic issues.”

North Korea’s growing arsenal of nuclear-capable missiles poses a major security threat to South Korea and Japan. But China, North Korea’s last major ally and biggest source of aid, is suspected of avoiding fully enforcing United Nations sanctions on North Korea and shipping covert assistance to the North to help its impoverished neighbor stay afloat and continue to serve as a bulwark against U.S. influences on the Korean Peninsula.

On Sunday, South Korea, Japan and the U.S. held maritime drills involving the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier near the Korean Peninsula, their latest show of force against North Korea.

North Korea typically views such U.S.-involved military training as an invasion rehearsal.

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