Leaders from China, South Korea, and Japan gathered in Chengdu, the capital of China’s southwestern province of Sichuan, earlier this week. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang presided over the meeting, where North Korea and its missile development featured prominently on the agenda. Chinese President Xi Jinping also met separately with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and Japan’s Shinzo Abe in Beijing earlier this week ahead of the trilateral.
The meeting comes as North Korea signaled it would pursue unspecified action (many have speculated the test firing of a new missile) in the remaining days of 2019. Nuclear talks with the United States have stalled since February, when North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump met in Vietnam. Kim has pressed for the lifting of sanctions, and Pyongyang is demanding concessions by the close of the year before it will be willing to sign on to a deal regarding its nuclear program.
From Chengdu, Li, Moon, and Abe expressed their shared interest in peace on the Korean Peninsula and denuclearization. “We three countries are willing to work together with the international community to solve the issue of Korea Peninsula in a political way,” Li said at a joint press conference.
In addition to concerns about regional security and North Korea, economics remain an underlying bond between the three countries with trilateral trade hitting more than $720 billion last year. Combined, the three countries account for just shy of 24 percent of global trade. At the latest meeting, the three leaders agreed to jointly push for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an expansive multilateral trade deal spanning the Asia-Pacific, although its future is uncertain (India refused to participate in RCEP earlier this year, but the remaining 15 members plan to sign the pact in 2020). The trio also committed to working more closely together to speed up negotiations on a China-ROK-Japan free trade agreement. The trilateral trade agreement was first proposed in 2002 and negotiations kicked off in 2012.
Besides the pronouncements that came from the meeting itself, the Chengdu gathering is also notable for bringing to gather Abe and Moon, who met for the first time in 15 months. Tensions between Tokyo and Seoul are at their highest in decades following a ruling by the South Korean Supreme Court that ordered Japanese firms to compensate South Koreans for forced labor during the Japanese colonial era — an issue that Japan says was settled in the 1965 treaty normalizing relations. Retaliatory measures ensued, including Japanese restrictions on the export of high-tech materials to South Korea related to chip manufacturing. In late November, South Korea narrowly opted to continue an intelligence sharing pact with Japan, reversing its prior decision to pull out of the deal.
This trilateral meeting celebrated 20 years of cooperation, originally dating back to the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. However, trilateral initiatives seeking to build confidence between the three Northeast Asian neighbors have been slow going, not least because of differences over Japan’s colonial legacy and territorial disputes. Nevertheless, China has been pushing for a greater regional approach toward not only Northeast Asia but the Asia-Pacific more broadly while carving out a significant role for Beijing in overseeing and shaping the region’s interactions and trajectory. The arrival of the Trump administration ushered in new uncertainty for longtime U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, creating an opening for the three countries to turn more toward one another to address shared challenges on the economic or security front. Still, it remains to be seen whether a more regional outlook will be successful in a trilateral form or whether more fruitful exchanges will manifest themselves bilaterally between Beijing and Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo, and Seoul and Tokyo.