Pursuing Rapprochement Between China, Japan, and South Korea

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Flashpoints | Diplomacy | East Asia

Pursuing Rapprochement Between China, Japan, and South Korea

Restarting the trilateral could be a remedy for the growing geopolitical rift and help ensure stability in the Asia-Pacific.

Pursuing Rapprochement Between China, Japan, and South Korea

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, center, and Japanese Foreign Minister Kamikawa Yoko pose for a photo prior to the trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting in Busan, South Korea, Nov. 26, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, Pool

In November 2023, when the foreign ministers of China, Japan, and South Korea finally met after a four-year hiatus in trilateral cooperation, hopes were high for the long-awaited Northeast Asia rapprochement. The next trilateral summit, scheduled to be convened at “the earliest convenient time,” is much-needed at a time when trust and cooperation between the three countries have been strained by the formation of minilaterals and alliances in the Asia Pacific. 

Despite the initial optimism, the trilateral summit did not eventuate. It was postponed for another half year, from December 2023 to (as the latest reports suggest) the end of May 2024. The summit has not been officially confirmed and thus could be pushed back even further. The governments cannot afford further delay, however, and should prioritize keeping the communication channels open for diplomacy.

Curtailing the talks in anticipation of better times or drastic changes in the geopolitical strategy won’t serve the nations well. Such an erratic approach leads to further disturbances and schisms, neglecting the rising threats, particularly from the three countries’ closest neighbor – North Korea. 

Despite the general buzz around recent diplomatic encounters, the formation of regional coalitions between South Korea, Japan, and the United States on one side and China, North Korea, and Russia on the other does not come as a surprise. In fact, these developments closely follow each country’s foreign policy priorities. To soothe the rough edges in China-Japan-South Korea trilateral relations, the governments should come to the negotiation table in May to discuss existing concerns and to stabilize the regional foundation ahead of the upcoming U.S. presidential elections, which may greatly affect the region’s future.

The China-Japan-South Korea summit, which was initially planned to be held annually, has not been held since 2019. The original impasse was mostly triggered by deteriorating Japan-South Korea relations as the two butted head over the issue of Japan’s exploitation of Koreans for wartime forced labor. The issue of compensation for survivors was resolved in March 2023 through an offer from the South Korean government. Following that, the United States facilitated considerable improvement in Japan-South Korea relations through the Camp David Summit in 2023. 

The strengthening of the Japan-South Korea-U.S. partnership served as an impetus for the two Northeast Asian countries to transcend historical grievances. As a corollary, that meant an agenda to revive the China-Japan-South Korea summit was again on the table. 

However, China is uncomfortable with the growing presence of Washington in the Northeast Asia political and security equation. Of particular concern to China is the prospect for a formal trilateral alliance between Japan, South Korea, and the United States, something Beijing has openly warned against. Beijing thus challenges the reasoning behind the trilateral rapprochement, reflecting a fundamental discontent with its neighbors’ growing ties. 

As the biggest trading partner for both South Korea and Japan, China has sought to leverage its economic power to create divisions in the U.S.-led alliance system, attempting to lure countries to their side. Regretfully for China, the increase in the military signalling involving China or its “friends” – namely the Ukraine crisis, expansion of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, maritime disputes in the South China Sea, and persistent rhetoric describing “reunification” with Taiwan – increased the threat perceptions of South Korea and Japan. Both have sought to expand defense and security cooperation with the United States as a result. 

The division between the U.S. allies and China has grown even deeper after a state visit by Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to Washington earlier this month. Proclaiming the democratization of the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. is consolidating its presence in the region, particularly increasing its access around the South China Sea. 

Simultaneously, a less discussed trilateral technology meeting between India, the United States, and South Korea occurred in March, complementing China’s encirclement by a U.S.-led alliance. 

Such actions have not had the intended result of constraining China’s assertiveness in the region; on the contrary, the Chinese leadership has undertaken bold decisions to strengthen opposition to Western hegemonism and bloc confrontation. Indeed, the trend toward U.S.-led minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific is triggering China’s skepticism toward its closest neighbors. 

Without an outstretched hand for consultations on regional issues, the all-round confrontation with China only leads to a deadlock that could escalate into a conflict. This is where the trilateral dialogue between Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul should serve as a platform to address regional frustrations, even if it might be less fruitful than previous negotiations.

Consider the Korean Peninsula tensions as an example. One of the main threats bringing China, Japan, and South Korea together over the years has been North Korea’s volatile behavior and its nuclear and missile program. Since the last round of Six-Party Talks in 2009 failed to dismantle the North Korean nuclear arsenal and capabilities, the trilateral dialogue remained one of the few venues for addressing the existential threat. Over the last four years, while Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul chose to refrain from trilateral meetings over bilateral resentment, North Korea was steadily increasing its military capabilities, particularly advancing its intermediate- and long-range missiles. 

Additionally, by strengthening its “deep friendship” with Russia, North Korea signaled the fading influence of Beijing over Pyongyang, which goes against the Chinese plan to be the main mediator in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. 

In addition, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio announced the possibility of holding talks with the North Korean leader for the first time in 20 years, which would further undermine China’s role on the Korean Peninsula. This initiative, if successful, would decrease the number of provocations from the North Korean side toward Japan, and hence was immediately supported by the United States as a possible continuation of the post-Camp David effect. While this meeting could be a risky gambit considering all the Japan-North Korea historical tensions, if discussions at the trilateral summit win support from China,  a Japanese diplomatic breakthrough could present a feasible opportunity to tackle the so-far insoluble North Korean threat. 

The timing of conducting the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral next month is dictated by upcoming Japan-South Korea-U.S. talks this July, on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Washington. Before bringing regional issues that will likely involve China to the agenda with the United States, Japan and South Korea should directly engage with Beijing in an attempt to agree upon the pressing regional issues. If Tokyo and Seoul have an understanding of Beijing’s priorities, they can convey these ideas to Washington to further shape the U.S. relationship with China and to foster resilient security cooperation in the region. 

From a broader perspective, the uncertainty of the upcoming U.S. presidential elections also drives U.S. partners to be more wary of the extensive commitments being made by Washington. After all, a second Trump presidency might turn the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy around 180 degrees. Therefore, balancing between two major regional powers for the next half of the year in anticipation of the election’s results could be a wise choice for Japan and South Korea.

Polarization and disengagement in the global order have become daunting trends in recent years, with more countries refusing to seek compromises. Nations are turning from multilateralism, preferring small groupings with more immediate security and economic benefits at the cost of regional fragmentation. In the Asia and Indo-Pacific, minilateral formations, mostly initiated by the United States, have multiplied, aiming to counter China’s assertiveness in security, technology, and the economy. While the role of the United States and the influence of its alliance network across the ocean grows, China’s close neighbors – Japan and South Korea – should be more careful when taking a harder stance on regional issues involving China.

The trilateral summit between Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul, despite recent turbulence, is an important diplomatic venue to discuss the future of the cooperation between three countries that are not ready to break their political and economic co-dependence. Given the rapid pace of diplomatic events unfolding this year, it cannot be further postponed.