Foreign Ministers of China, Japan, South Korea Set to Meet Amid Seoul-Tokyo Tensions

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Foreign Ministers of China, Japan, South Korea Set to Meet Amid Seoul-Tokyo Tensions

Can the Northeast Asian trilateral leaders’ meeting materialize this year?

Foreign Ministers of China, Japan, South Korea Set to Meet Amid Seoul-Tokyo Tensions

The 2018 trilateral meeting in Tokyo.

Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

The foreign ministers of China, Japan, and South Korea will meet in Beijing on August 21, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced on Friday. The meeting will be the ninth in an ongoing series of trilateral foreign ministers meetings between the top diplomatic officials of the three countries.

According to Hua Chunying, the spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi will be chairing the meeting. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono will attend as well.

The meeting comes at a time of especially heightened tensions between Seoul and Tokyo. Kono and Kang have met since Japan’s imposition of export controls in early July exacerbating simmering tensions over a 2018 South Korean Supreme Court verdict on a Japanese company’s culpability for the use of forced Korean labor during Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea.

The two foreign ministers also met in January 2019, not long after a tense December 2018 incident involving accusations by Japan of a South Korean warship having locked its fire control radar on a Maritime Self-Defense Force surveillance aircraft.

The upcoming trilateral dialogue is meant to create momentum for a planned trilateral leaders’ meeting that would bring Chinese President Xi Jinping (or Premier Li Keqiang), Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in together.

Last May, in Tokyo, that trilateral met for the first time after a two-and-a-half year break. Li, the Chinese premier, stepped in alongside Moon and Abe. The summit had occurred annual between 2008 and 2012. Its inaugural iteration took place in 2008.

After the 2012 meeting, tensions between Japan and China exploded amid two events. The first was Tokyo’s decision to purchase the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands from a private owner, effectively nationalizing them. The second, in December, was Abe’s election to a second nonconsecutive term as Japan’s prime minister.

Amid heightened Japan-China tensions, not only did the trilateral leaders’ level summit between China, Japan, and South Korea not take place, but neither did Abe meet Xi in a former summit setting.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has said that the upcoming trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting will lay the groundwork for a leaders’ summit, but it’s unclear if the ongoing Japan-South Korea tensions will allow for that to occur.

At last years’ meeting, the three leaders had an obvious regional agenda: the nuclear negotiations with North Korea. The May 2018 meeting came just shortly after the historic meeting between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at Panmunjom, on the inter-Korean border.

This year, with North Korea talks at a standstill amid difficulties at both the inter-Korean and the U.S.-North Korea level, the regional agenda is muddled.