When the fourth is superfluous


On May 26–27, the leaders of China, South Korea and Japan held talks in Seoul for the first time after a four-year break.

It’s worth noting that, unlike the other two countries, China was represented not by its head of state, but by Premier Li Qiang of the State Council. Xi Jinping, Chinese President and leader of the CPC, who holds full power in the country especially after recent reallocation of powers, did not attend the summit. This might indirectly suggest a reduced level of attention to this format from China.

The Chinese representative tried his best to use the summit as an opportunity to normalize relations and smooth out contradictions. According to Xinhua, he stated that despite significant global changes, the relationships between China, Japan, and South Korea have not changed. Li Qiang noted that «the spirit of cooperation, formed in response to crises, and the common mission of maintaining prosperity and stability in the region have not changed. The goal and original intention of cooperation between China, Japan, and the ROK is to promote development, strengthen cooperation in East Asia, and maintain peace and prosperity in the region and the world».

In his address to summit colleagues, Li Qiang reminded them of Xi Jinping’s diplomatic principles toward neighboring countries: goodwill, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness. China, Japan, and the ROK, geographically separated by a narrow strip of water, should be peaceful and friendly neighbors, the Chinese Premier added. He urged the three sides to learn from history and look to the future, follow the will of the people of the three countries to live and work in peace and contentment, strive to eliminate external interference, always live in harmony and maintain solidarity. According to Li Qiang, culturally connected China, Japan, and the ROK, should be close neighbors and use this cultural proximity for mutual understanding, trust, and close cooperation. However, it’s not entirely clear how much his partners share these views.

The main concrete outcome of the trilateral meeting was the agreement to accelerate negotiations to conclude a free trade agreement, which have been underway since 2012 (with 16 rounds already held). Positively, a joint declaration was adopted, in which the parties declare their intention to deepen cooperation in six areas: humanitarian exchanges (with the goal of involving 40 million people in such exchanges, including through tourism, by 2030); sustainable development, including combating climate change; economic cooperation and trade (including by accelerating negotiations on the trilateral free trade agreement); public health, especially in the context of an aging population; scientific and technical cooperation, including digital transformation; and disaster relief and security.

It was also agreed to hold subsequent meetings in the trilateral format without long breaks and to declare the next year as the Year of Cultural Exchanges between the three countries.

Objectively speaking, this is where the trilateral consensus ends. The statements by the Chinese Premier were aimed at encouraging the other two countries to proceed from pragmatic national interests rather than for the benefit of a third party. In particular, Li Qiang warned against «turning trade and economic issues into political games or security issues» and protectionism. The Chinese Premier also condemned the «formation of blocs and camps» (clearly referring to the creation of a military-political alliance of these countries under the US last year), urging to «adhere to the spirit of strategic autonomy and maintain our bilateral relations». «China, Japan, and South Korea should properly address delicate issues and differences, as well as consider each other’s core interests and concerns. And indeed build true multilateralism», Li stated.

When discussing the issue of the Korean Peninsula, traditional disagreements emerged. China, which takes into account North Korea’s security concerns, called for «all parties to play a constructive role and remain committed to easing tensions». South Korea and Japan, currently following in the wake of the US, aiming to disarm North Korea and eliminate its regime, urged Beijing to exert pressure on Pyongyang. The joint communiqué, however, stated that Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo reaffirmed their positions on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and agreed to «continue to make positive efforts for a political resolution of the Korean Peninsula issue». But these are largely diplomatic niceties. It is clear that under current conditions and given the intransigent positions of the parties, denuclearization is impossible.

At the core, all three countries are interested in deepening economic relations. For Japan and South Korea, China is the main trade and economic partner. China, following its strategy of «trading, not antagonizing», is ready for this and seeks to use such summits to promote this concept. However, the shadow of the US looms large, along with mutual grievances within this triangle, including historical ones. Politics, ideology, bloc thinking, and orientation towards Washington hinder the development of regional cooperation.

Contradictions also emerged during bilateral contacts preceding the summit itself. Japanese Prime Minister Kishida, responding to the positive attitude of his Chinese counterpart, noted that maintaining a healthy dynamic in Japan-China relations benefits not only both countries but the whole world. Japan is ready to work with China to implement important agreements reached by the leaders of the two countries, support high-level exchanges, strengthen cooperation in areas such as the green economy, healthcare, collaboration in third-country markets, facilitate expert exchanges, deepen regional cooperation, and jointly address climate change and other global issues, the Prime Minister said.

However, during the conversation, the «unsinkable aircraft carrier of the US» — Taiwan — inevitably came up. Formally, Tokyo and Seoul recognize the existence of «one China». However, during the meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida «strictly» warned that Tokyo is closely monitoring developments around Taiwan, referring also to the escalation related to the «inauguration» of the new head of the Taiwan administration Lai Ching-te and military maneuvers near the island by the Chinese army and navy. Li responded that Taiwan is at the «core» of Beijing’s interests and called it a red line that cannot be crossed.

The Japanese leader also urged Beijing to lift the ban on importing Japanese seafood imposed last year due to the release of water from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. In response, Li proposed establishing an international system for monitoring the discharged water.

Similarly, during the China-South Korea bilateral meeting, both countries expressed readiness to develop trade and economic cooperation. Seoul and Beijing agreed to create new and resume old communication channels between diplomats and the military on internal and external security issues, including the so-called Track 1.5 Dialogue (between current government officials and the expert community, including former diplomats) and strategic security talks at the deputy foreign minister level. Additionally, China and South Korea will restart the joint investment cooperation committee, which was suspended in 2011, and scheduled a working meeting on the free trade agreement for early June. But politics — the Korean Peninsula issue, South Korea’s military alliance with the US, Taiwan, and other factors — leave their mark.

The Japan-South Korea bilateral meeting was much more harmonious. Both sides confirmed their course towards further military-diplomatic and economic cooperation. The South Korean president expressed hope that the joint work of the two leaders would elevate bilateral ties «to an even higher level» ahead of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations next year.

Despite the differences, all three countries are deeply interested in strengthening cooperation. This was evidenced not only by the signed documents but also by the joint press conference at the end of the summit. If politics were set aside, the region’s economy could breathe much more freely. But how to achieve this when two of the three countries are not free in their decisions, and the shadow of a fourth, invisible participant looms everywhere? As the Washington Post, the mouthpiece of part of the American establishment, rightly noted, the summit showed that our partners have their own interests, which do not always align with ours.