China, Japan PMs arrive in Seoul for summit focused on economic cooperation

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Li Qiang, Fumio Kishida, Yoon Suk Yeol

In a significant diplomatic development, Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrived in Seoul on Sunday to participate in a trilateral summit with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. This marks the first such summit in five years, a hiatus primarily attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and prolonged strained relations between Seoul and Tokyo. The summit is anticipated to prioritize economic cooperation over sensitive geopolitical issues.

Upon arrival, Premier Li and Prime Minister Kishida are scheduled for separate bilateral meetings with President Yoon. These meetings aim to strengthen individual ties and lay the groundwork for the trilateral discussions. On Sunday evening, the three leaders will convene for a dinner, fostering an informal setting for initial dialogue and rapport building.

On Monday, the formal trilateral meeting will take place, a significant event given the changes in regional and global landscapes since the last summit. Prime Minister Kishida emphasized the importance of this meeting, noting its potential to revitalize trilateral diplomacy. “I would like to have an honest conversation with President Yoon Suk Yeol and Premier Li Qiang, and agree on working-level cooperation in a forward-looking manner,” Kishida stated before his departure from Tokyo.

Despite the pressing geopolitical issues, including North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and China’s military maneuvers around Taiwan, experts predict that the summit will steer clear of these contentious topics. Instead, the focus will likely be on economic collaboration, an area where the three nations can find common ground and achieve diplomatic wins.

China, Japan, and South Korea collectively account for 20 percent of the world’s population and trade, and 25 percent of the global GDP. This economic significance underscores the importance of trilateral cooperation. “The importance of cooperation between the three nations cannot be overemphasized,” stated an editorial in South Korea’s Hankook Ilbo. The editorial further stressed the necessity for the three countries to overcome their differences to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.

Despite the potential for economic collaboration, significant challenges remain due to the divergent positions on key geopolitical issues. China, as North Korea’s largest trading partner and a crucial diplomatic ally, has historically resisted condemning Pyongyang’s weapons tests, often criticizing the joint military drills conducted by the United States and South Korea instead.

North Korea’s recent rhetoric only adds to the complexity. On Sunday, Pyongyang denounced what it called “wartime” level spy plane and boat missions by Seoul and Washington, threatening “immediate action” if its sovereignty were breached. An official from Seoul’s presidential office acknowledged the difficulty in resolving North Korea-related issues quickly, indicating that the summit would focus more on economic cooperation.

However, the South Korean administration is aiming for a joint declaration that includes security issues to some extent. This delicate balance highlights the intricate dynamics of the summit, where economic cooperation is the main agenda, but geopolitical concerns cannot be entirely sidelined.

One area of potential contention between Seoul and Tokyo is the business dispute over the messaging app LINE, developed by South Korea’s Naver. Tokyo is pressuring Naver to sell its controlling share in Japan, a move that could strain bilateral economic relations. Additionally, Prime Minister Kishida is expected to raise the issue of China’s suspension of Japanese seafood imports. China halted Japanese fish shipments last year following Tokyo’s decision to release wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant, a contentious issue that has affected bilateral trade.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, anticipates that the summit will involve “shallower cooperation” compared to the level of foreign policy alignment seen between Tokyo, Seoul, and Washington. Nonetheless, he believes the meeting could make incremental progress across various functional issues among Northeast Asian neighbors. “That China is finally reengaging in such trilateral coordination is good news for a rules-based regional order,” Easley remarked. However, he cautioned Yoon and Kishida against allowing Beijing to use trilateral cooperation as leverage to mute discussions on critical issues such as Taiwan, the South China Sea, human rights, and unfair trade practices.

The trilateral summit in Seoul represents a critical opportunity for China, Japan, and South Korea to enhance economic cooperation and address some of the region’s pressing issues. While significant challenges remain, particularly concerning geopolitical tensions, the willingness of the three nations to engage in dialogue and seek common ground is a positive step towards regional stability and prosperity. As the summit unfolds, the outcomes will be closely watched, not only for their immediate implications but also for their potential to shape the future of Northeast Asian diplomacy.

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