June 25, 2024

South Korea, Japan, and China will resume high-level talks for the first time in over four years next week, sending senior leaders to a summit aimed at stabilizing ties among the Asian neighbors.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will host Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese Premier Li Qiang in Seoul Monday, South Korea’s presidential office announced this week.

The three countries have hoped to hold yearly summits, but the meetings have not occurred since 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and bilateral frictions, which have continued to emerge.

This week, China lashed out at South Korea and Japan after lawmakers from both countries attended the inauguration of Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te. China views self-ruled Taiwan as its own and sees Lai as a dangerous separatist.

FILE - South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol, center, speak as Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, left, and China's Premier Li Keqiang listen to during the ASEAN Plus Three Summits in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 12, 2022.

FILE – South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol, center, speak as Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, left, and China’s Premier Li Keqiang listen to during the ASEAN Plus Three Summits in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 12, 2022.

China has also watched warily as Japan and South Korea expand defense cooperation, not only between themselves but also with the United States. China fears the U.S. is working with its Asian allies to contain Beijing.

Although South Korea-Japan ties have improved under Yoon, the relationship is showing signs of strain after South Korean politicians accused Tokyo of inappropriately pressuring a South Korean company to sell its stake in a popular Japanese messaging app.

Analysts do not expect the summit to produce any breakthroughs to resolve these disputes. Instead, the three sides hope to regularize the leader-level meetings, restoring an important channel for managing tense relations.

The summit “will not solve every problem and curb potential conflicts in the region in a single stroke,” said Park Cheol Hee, chancellor of the state-run Korea National Diplomatic Academy, in a commentary on the website of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

However, since all three countries are economically interdependent and wish to avoid a “Cold War scenario,” it is necessary to manage the level of conflict “to a tolerable level,” Park added.

Diplomatic dance

Since taking office two years ago, Yoon has improved ties with Japan, partnering with Kishida to cooperate on common issues such as nuclear-armed North Korea.

In this combination photos, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, in London on Nov. 22, 2023, Chinese Premier Li Qiang, center, in Beijing on April 7, 2024, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks in Washington on April 10, 2024.

In this combination photos, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, in London on Nov. 22, 2023, Chinese Premier Li Qiang, center, in Beijing on April 7, 2024, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks in Washington on April 10, 2024.

However, Yoon and Kishida have trodden more cautiously when it comes to China, a vital trading partner for both Seoul and Tokyo.

Although neither leader has overseen drastic changes to his country’s China policies, both have embraced a tougher, values-based rhetoric – often speaking of the contest between democracy and authoritarianism.

South Korea and Japan have also grown bolder about speaking of the importance of preserving the status quo in democratic Taiwan, which China has threatened to take by force.

Yoon especially upset China last year when he called Taiwan’s fate a “global issue.” China objects to such statements, insisting its relationship with Taiwan is a domestic matter.

As Lai was sworn in as Taiwan’s president this week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi lashed out against those he said were attempting to challenge the “one-China principle.”

China on Thursday launched two days of large-scale military exercises encircling Taiwan, further raising tension around what is perhaps the region’s most sensitive hotspot.

China’s approach

However, China may have some incentive to appear more conciliatory during next week’s summit.

Jeffrey Robertson, a professor of diplomatic studies at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said China may conclude it has much to gain simply by reestablishing dialogue with Japan and South Korea – a forum that excludes the United States.

“I think [China] is going to try to show that it is less threatening to Korea and Japan and show that there is an alternative,” Robertson added. “It’s demonstrating that the region has the potential to govern itself.”

While some analysts have said that China may use the meeting to create or expose divisions between South Korea and Japan, that may not be necessary now.

“I think those cracks [between South Korea and Japan] are already present and pretty much filling up with water right now,” Robertson said.

Japan-Korea tensions

In recent weeks, several prominent South Korean politicians accused Japan of pressuring South Korean tech giant Naver to sell its stake in the company that controls Line, a do-it-all social media app that dominates digital life in Japan.

Japanese regulators say the move is motivated by information security concerns, after Naver suffered a cyberattack that resulted in a massive leak of data, including the personal information of Line users.

But South Korean opposition figures have jumped on the issue to attack Yoon’s friendlier approach to Japan, with some even comparing the dispute to Japan’s colonization of Korea.

According to Japan’s Kyodo news agency, Kishida and Yoon may discuss the Line/Naver issue during bilateral talks to be held on the sidelines of the broader summit.

The Japanese and South Korean leaders will also likely urge China to pressure North Korea to reengage in denuclearization talks, said Bruce Bennett, a defense researcher at the Rand Corporation.

“But I’m not sure if much will come out of that,” said Bennett, who spoke to reporters last week at the Asan Plenum, a conference in Seoul.

China does not have much influence in North Korea, said Bennett, adding that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will only act “if he thinks it’s in his best interest.”

Instead, the trilateral summit is expected to focus on issues including personnel exchanges, climate change, trade, health and aging population, technology, and disasters, according to South Korean officials.

While those topics may not attract much media attention, officials in South Korea say the discussions are worthwhile – if nothing else, to create dialogue that will prevent tensions from spinning out of control.

In an editorial last week for South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper, Yoon’s former National Security Adviser Kim Sung-han argued that close communication with China is essential for regional peace and prosperity – and for avoiding conflict along the lines of World War I.

Few if any expect any breakthroughs – not least of all because China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, will not attend this round of talks.

“It’s just the fact that they’re starting the dialogue again – I think it’s significant enough in itself,” Robertson said.

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