Skip to content

Three-Body Problem: Leaders of China, South Korea and Japan Meet in Seoul for Bilateral/Trilateral Summits

For the first time since 2019, the heads of state and government of South Korea, China and Japan are meeting May 26-27 in the South Korean capital of Seoul. Although they had first met as a trio in 2008 and agreed to meet yearly, the sharply worsening strategic crisis, including U.S. efforts to court both Japan and South Korea to distance themselves from both China and Russia, had interrupted that process. Last year, there was a first-of-its-kind summit of Japan and South Korea’s leaders with President Biden, which attempted to consolidate an anti-China dynamic in the entire Asia-Pacific region.

This weekend’s meetings are not expected to produce any major breakthroughs, but the mere fact of the meeting, as well as possible advances on the economic front, is a positive development.

First, the three leaders met in bilateral pairs. Reuters reported that “South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Chinese Premier Li Qiang agreed on Sunday [May 26] to launch a diplomatic and security dialogue and resume talks on a free trade agreement, Yoon’s office said.” Yoon began the meeting by noting that “Just as Korea and China have overcome various difficulties together over the past 30 years and contributed to each other’s development and growth, I hope to continue to strengthen bilateral cooperation even in the face of today’s global complex crises.” He also urged China to “play a greater role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council,” which refers to both pressuring North Korea on its development of nuclear missiles, and the ill-fated American campaign to get China to pressure Russia on the Ukraine matter.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang parried the intended pressure by insisting that their countries “should oppose turning economic and trade issues into political or security issues and should work to maintain stable supply chains, Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.”

Yoon then met with Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in which Yoon praised the two countries’ progress on diplomatic and economic issues, and looked forward to the two countries celebrating the 60th anniversary of normalizing relations in 2025.

Then came the Kishida-Li bilateral, where the Japanese head of government leaned on China on the Taiwan matter, saying, according to Reuters, that “the stability of the Taiwan Strait is very important for Japan and the international community.” China on May 22 had protested the fact that South Korean and Japanese lawmakers had attended the inauguration of Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te, who has maintained a provocative pro-independence line.

The trilateral summit is scheduled for Monday, May 27, and Seoul officials cited by Reuters said that “Yoon, Li and Kishida will adopt a joint statement on six areas including the economy and trade, science and technology, people-to-people exchanges and health and the aging population.” There will also be a session with business leaders from the three countries.

A Bloomberg wire summarized what to expect: “While the summit brings risks and rewards for all three, the stakes are high for China. It will likely try to push Japan and South Korea not to join U.S.-led efforts in further restricting exports of advanced chip-making equipment, after Tokyo imposed export controls last year. Japan has been resisting U.S. pressure to further curb sales to China.… `This is an opportunity for China to try to improve relations with Japan and South Korea without the United States,’ said Naoko Aoki, an associate political scientist with the Rand Corp. in Washington.… `If there are to be any concrete accomplishments this time, I expect that to be on economic and other non-security issues,’ Aoki said. “I don’t think the meeting is going to change anyone’s security calculus,’ she said, pointing to a significant gulf between Beijing and the other two on issues including North Korea and Taiwan.

According to wire reports, Yoon and Kishida may travel to Washington to meet with President Biden in the next few months.