China’s foreign ministry announced on Monday that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will travel to Seoul, South Korea from October 31 to November 2 to attend the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit. Li will meet with Korean President Park Geun-hye prior to both leaders joining the trilateral summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (a Li-Abe bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the trilateral also seems likely, although a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the two sides were still in discussions). The summit will resume what was previously an annual tradition after a three-year hiatus; the last trilateral leaders’ meeting took place in Beijing in May 2012.
The announcement not only solidifies that the trilateral is happening – confirming previous Japanese media reports that said it would take place on November 1 – but answers once and for all the question of who would attend on behalf of China. Though China was represented by its premier (then Wen Jiabao) at each of the previous summits from 2008 to 2012, some analysts had raised the possibility that Chinese President Xi Jinping would attend himself this time around. That, in turn, set the stage for another Xi-Abe bilateral. But China has decided to stick with precedent by sending Li to the trilateral instead.
There’s another reason for Li to attend the trilateral, beyond precedent: Xi has already visited South Korea, while Li has not paid an official visit since assuming office. Li’s trip later this month will be the first time in five years a Chinese premier has visited South Korea, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying pointed out in her announcement. That’s an interesting anomaly, given that the premier typically handles much of China’s economic portfolio, and China’s trade relationship with South Korea is an important part of their overall ties.
The summit gives China a chance to not only move forward the previously moribund trilateral cooperation mechanism in Northeast Asia, but to have Li make the rounds in Seoul. According to Xinhua, Li will meet with Park and other leaders “and attend activities on economic cooperation and people-to-people ties.” China-South Korea ties have blossomed under Park and Xi – the two leaders have held no less than six summits since both took office in early 2013 – and a visit from Li will help cement the economic side of ties.
Li’s attendance at the trilateral will also help keep a focus on economic relations between China, Japan, and South Korea, although the thorny historical and territorial issues will no doubt be the focus of much media attention. Hua told reporters that China hopes the trilateral summit will help set the direction of China-Japan-South Korea cooperation; with Li in attendance, that direction will likely be heavy on trade and economic ties.
One possible focus: sealing the deal on a China-Japan-South Korea free trade area. China’s Ministry of Commerce already announced that the three countries will hold another round of negotiations on forming a trilateral free trade zone this December. “The three sides agreed that a high-standard FTZ is in the interests of all and will aid development and prosperity in the region,” Commerce Ministry spokesperson Shen Danyang explained, according to Xinhua.
As China’s economy slows, Beijing is looking for ways to keep economic momentum going – an important part of the calculation in allowing for a détente between China and Japan over the past year. A China-Japan-South Korea trilateral would be a huge boost for China’s economy, and would help to offset some of the expected negative of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal (which includes Japan but not, at the moment, China or South Korea).