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Will Frozen China-South Korea Relations Thaw as Seoul Hosts Upcoming Trilateral Summit?

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The Koreas | Diplomacy | East Asia

Will Frozen China-South Korea Relations Thaw as Seoul Hosts Upcoming Trilateral Summit?

Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s expected visit for the summit will be a crucial indicator of the future of strained Seoul-Beijing relations under South Korea’s pro-U.S. President Yoon Suk-yeol.

Will Frozen China-South Korea Relations Thaw as Seoul Hosts Upcoming Trilateral Summit?
Credit: Depositphotos

The trilateral relationship between the United States, Japan, and South Korea has gained significant attention, especially following their historic meeting at Camp David last August. However, there is also an established trilateral summit system between China, Japan, and South Korea that has been less publicized. Formally launched 16 years ago, this summit system includes a dedicated secretariat office, the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS), headquartered in Seoul and staffed by government officials from the three nations.

The initial credit for the East Asian trilateral summit goes to Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi  Keizo, who proposed the idea to then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who then conveyed the message to Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji. The timing was fortuitous. In the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the three leaders recognized the need for deeper East Asian solidarity to better cope with global crises. 

In 1998, Kim and Obuchi announced a joint declaration to establish a new partnership between South Korea and Japan based on mutual understanding and trust, putting their difficult past behind them and working toward a future-oriented relationship. China, under the reform-oriented Zhu, was also motivated to integrate more deeply into the advanced industrial supply chain with its neighbors.

The leaders first met for breakfast on the sidelines of the ASEAN+3 summit in Manila in 1999. Subsequent meetings at various government levels followed, and in 2008, they decided to institutionalize the summit as a regular event, establishing the TCS in 2011 to coordinate various trilateral projects. The decision to locate the TCS in Seoul reflected South Korea’s relatively good relations with both China and Japan at the time, as neither wanted the office to be in the other’s capital.

The Asian trilateral summit was planned to be held annually, but territorial disputes, historical grievances, and domestic political contingencies often intervened, making it an on-and-off meeting. The COVID-19 pandemic also halted the summit. Now, for the first time in over four years, the three nations have finally agreed to resume the trilateral summit on May 26, with South Korea as the rotating chair.

Given the ongoing and often intensifying China-U.S. rivalry, and considering that both South Korea and Japan are treaty allies of the United States, the fact that this Asian trilateral meeting is being held at all deserves credit. However, the difficulty in convening such a meeting also highlights the challenges of reaching any substantive political and economic agreements, given their diverging national strategies and their alignments with the United States.

The summit is expected to focus on “soft issues,” such as promoting people-to-people exchanges, fighting infectious diseases, and other non-controversial topics. Additionally, the three countries have reportedly reached a consensus on expanding free trade and cooperating to stabilize supply chains. Discussions will likely include measures to enhance the transparency of food and resource supply chains, the utilization of digital technologies, the protection of intellectual property, and the strengthening of support for startups.

However, significant differences remain, with South Korea and Japan prioritizing their U.S. alliances, while China focuses on countering U.S. influence on its two allies.

With South Korea hosting this year’s summit, a key point of interest is whether the meeting will also serve as a catalyst to revive China-South Korea relations, which have been in a downturn since South Korea agreed to host an advanced U.S. missile defense system, THAAD, to which China reacted angrily. 

Relations further deteriorated when South Korea’s conservative and pro-U.S. President Yoon Suk-yeol was sworn in in 2022. Yoon criticized his predecessor Moon Jae-in for being “pro-China” and asserted that “most South Koreans do not like China.” Despite recent meetings between their foreign ministers in Busan in November and then in Beijing this month, the two sides have not yet found the right approach to put their relationship back on track.

After his meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on May 13, South Korean Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul said, “The most important agreement and outcome is that we acknowledged our differences and decided to cooperate,” indicating there were no significant achievements. Examining the statements released by both countries after the China-South Korea foreign ministers’ meeting, it is clear there were differences on sensitive issues such as Taiwan and North Korea’s nuclear program. While Cho raised issues like North Korea’s provocations and the forced repatriation of North Korean defectors by China, these were omitted from the Chinese statement. Conversely, the issue of Taiwan, emphasized by Wang, was not included in the South Korean statement.

Against this backdrop, attention is focused on whether the resumed trilateral summit will provide fresh momentum for South Korea and China to repair their ties. However, it is too early to assume a thaw in China-South Korea relations is in sight. 

China believes that the South Korean government is trying to use the trilateral summit as an opportunity to “turn the page” after Yoon’s party suffered a significant defeat in the legislative elections in April. Regardless of whether this framing is accurate, it could shape China’s attitude toward South Korea. 

In particular, there is a perception within China that South Korea, having joined the U.S. camp to confront China and facing trade fallout as a result, is now seeking to improve economic and trade relations with China to promote its own economic interests. China remains South Korea’s largest trading partner. In this context, China views South Korea as the disadvantaged party in their bilateral relationship. In November last year, during the trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting held in Busan, Wang skipped the scheduled dinner banquet, saying he was “busy.

South Korea’s recent improvement in relations with Japan does not necessarily serve as diplomatic leverage in dealing with China within the trilateral framework. The current relationship between China and Japan is favorable, and Japan’s diplomatic finesse of firmly aligning with the United States while delicately managing its relationship with China offers important lessons for South Korea.

In dealing with China, South Korea should not miss opportunities to secure its national interests. In April last year, President Xi Jinping’s surprise visit to the LG Display factory in Guangzhou was seen by South Korean analysts as a signal that China, pressured by the United States’ high-tech containment, was trying to woo the South Korean government through Korean companies. 

A week later, however, Yoon responded with remarks on the Taiwan issue, China’s most sensitive topic, in an interview with foreign media, leading to further turbulence in China-South Korea relations. It was then reported that the individuals who proposed Xi’s visit to LG Display were internally reprimanded within China. 

This missed opportunity underscores the importance of discerning China’s intentions and turning them into opportunities for South Korea. Astute diplomacy could have ended China’s THAAD trade retaliation. 

Chinese experts note that while they understand South Korea’s pro-U.S. policy, unlike Japan, South Korea’s policy for managing China remains unclear. Overall, China-South Korea relations have lost momentum and are adrift. 

The discord between South Korea and China runs deep, making it a test for Yoon’s government to use this trilateral summit to promote national interests amid China-U.S. competition and to seize momentum to improve relations with China.

It is a critical time for South Korea’s diplomacy, and the outcome of the trilateral summit will be closely watched to see if it can pave the way for more stable and constructive relations among the three countries.