China, Japan, and South Korea discuss steady resumption of trilateral cooperation

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Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Nong Rong (right) South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Chung Byung-won (centre), Japanese Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Takehiro Funakoshi (left). Photo source: VCG

27th September 2023 – (Seoul) High-level officials from China, Japan, and South Korea recently engaged in extensive discussions regarding the resumption of trilateral cooperation. They agreed to hold a foreign ministers’ meeting in the coming months and maintain communication for a leaders’ meeting at the earliest convenient opportunity. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin provided details on Tuesday.

The meeting, which took place in Seoul, was attended by Nong Rong, China’s assistant minister of foreign affairs, Takehiro Funakoshi, Japan’s senior deputy foreign minister, and Chung Byung-won, South Korean deputy foreign minister.

The officials recognised that trilateral cooperation serves the common interests of all three parties. They emphasised the need to enhance practical cooperation in areas such as culture, people-to-people exchanges, economy and trade, scientific and technological innovation, sustainable development, and public health. This collaborative effort aims to make progress in trilateral cooperation and contribute to regional peace, stability, and prosperity, according to Wang.

South Korea, as the chair of the trilateral cooperation mechanism, proposed a trilateral summit to be held in late December, as reported by Japanese broadcaster TBS.

Chinese analysts caution that it might be premature to commit to a leaders’ meeting in the near future. They believe that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and his government should make practical efforts to mend ties with China, which have been strained due to Seoul’s extreme pro-US foreign policy.

If conditions for a leaders’ meeting are met, it could potentially take place before South Korea’s legislative elections in April 2024. This timing would be crucial for President Yoon, as it would serve as a test of his performance and potentially boost his approval ratings, which have been declining.

President Yoon’s initial adoption of an extremely pro-U.S. foreign policy has negatively impacted relations with China, resulting in economic repercussions for South Korea, including rising unemployment rates, particularly among young professionals. As the economy consistently ranks as the primary concern for South Korean voters, restoring ties with China through a leaders’ meeting becomes imperative for President Yoon and his government to improve their approval ratings.

According to South Korean media, President Yoon’s domestic popularity remains lukewarm, with a recent Gallup poll showing his approval rating at a modest 34 per cent.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has criticized the US-Japan-South Korea summit held at Camp David in August, labelling it a deliberate attempt to create discord between China and its Asian neighbours. Chinese analysts have also expressed concerns that this summit could be a step towards establishing a U.S.-led “mini NATO” in the region, potentially prompting other countries in the region to take more assertive actions.

Experts argue that South Korea’s belief that closer ties with the U.S. will provide leverage in negotiations with China is wishful thinking. China primarily handles its relationship with South Korea through bilateral and trilateral cooperation mechanisms, rather than being influenced by South Korea’s alignment with the US.

While the prospect of a leaders’ meeting is on the horizon, it is important to note that ministerial-level talks must first establish concrete timelines and discussion topics. This process will not be easy, as it requires careful negotiation.

Experts emphasise that for a three-way meeting of leaders to proceed, the South Korean government must make practical efforts to rectify its China policy. This includes addressing sensitive issues such as Taiwan, refraining from provoking China in the South China Sea at the behest of the U.S., and withdrawing from anti-China alliances. Failure to do so may hinder any further arrangements for a trilateral leaders’ meeting.

In a separate development, South Korea held its first large-scale military parade in a decade on Tuesday to mark Armed Forces Day. The parade featured a display of weapons, including ballistic missiles and tanks, with over 300 U.S. combat troops from the Eighth Army participating. However, this show of force could provoke a strong response from North Korea, potentially endangering peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, caution experts.