15.06.2024 Author: Vladimir Terehov

The PRC-Japan-Republic of Korea Summit was held in Seoul


After a hiatus of more than three years, the PRC-Japan-Republic of Korea trilateral configuration resumed its work in Seoul at the end of May this year. However, its prospects remain unclear due to the extremely complex political environment in the East Asian region. 

On 26-27 May, the capital of the Republic of Korea, Seoul, hosted a series of summit meetings with the participation of Chinese Prime Ministers Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, as well as ROK President Yoon Suk Yeol. Although relatively recently, scepticism prevailed about the very possibility of holding such events in the above-mentioned composition of participants, which was also shared by the author of this article.

Since the picture of the general political situation in the East Asian region in general and, especially, in China’s relations with Japan, i.e. between its two main countries, looks very bad. The inauguration of the new President of Taiwan, which took place a week earlier, and everything that preceded it, but mainly followed it, were further evidence of this.

We should also note the fact that the penultimate (eighth) time the PRC-Japan-RC summit was held in December 2019, which is already quite far away. Including the gradual formation of a trilateral Free Trade Zone. However, almost immediately after the mentioned Summit of 2019, such plans began to look almost like ridiculous fantasies.

Therefore, against the backdrop of an increasingly gloomy picture of rising tensions in the region and the world at large, the events under discussion in Seoul look like a rare bright spot. However, the main one, i.e. the trilateral summit, was preceded by: 

Bilateral meetings

They are all of interest, each in its own way, but the Japan-China summit deserves special attention (for the reasons outlined above). And here, too, we would like to draw attention to the fact that in a situation in which not only the regional but also the world situation has fallen into a state of increasing (seemingly universal) insanity, it is not so much the final details of the meetings between the representatives of the opposing sides, but the very fact that the lines of communication between them are maintained and regularly used, that acquires exceptional importance.

Japan-China contacts at the level of heads of state agencies, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce, are more or less regular. They take place both at special bilateral events and in the margins of regional forums. In mid-May, for the first time (and also for the last four years), a “group of 20 senior PLA officers” visited Japan for talks with their counterparts in the Ministry of Defence.

However, the resumption of high-level Sino-Japanese contacts in Seoul is particularly noteworthy. In the course of the meeting, the two sides expressed all the significant mutual claims that had accumulated. This was particularly true with regard to the situation around Taiwan, which had been greatly exacerbated by the inauguration of William Lai as President of Taiwan.

Nevertheless, at F. Kishida’s final press conference after the meeting with Li Qiang, it was said that the parties “reaffirmed the course of a mutually beneficial strategic partnership and the maintenance of constructive and stable relations between Japan and China”. Very weighty words in terms of information and publicity. It remains to be seen what they will mean in practice.

As for the meeting between Li Qiang and ROK President Yoon Suk Yeol, the first words in the Xinhua News Agency’s brief report on it drew attention to the fact of the “deep intertwining of industrial cooperation and supply chains” between the two countries. Attempts to gradually integrate these “chains” into Washington’s course of decoupling from China have become a notable feature of Yoon Suk Yeol’s behaviour in the foreign policy arena since assuming the office of President of the Republic of Korea in May 2022.

However, one of the main components of the general message to him, as expressed by the country’s population in the parliamentary elections on 10 April, was that he should not be too zealous with the above-mentioned foreign policy turnaround. The aforementioned “wishes” of the electorate were reflected in the results of this meeting, as well as in the results of the visit of the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan to Beijing two weeks earlier.

The rather new domestic political situation that emerged in the Republic of Kazakhstan in connection with the above-mentioned elections was certainly the main background of his meeting with his Japanese counterpart F. Kishida. For the same message also contains his “advice” to slow down the process of Seoul’s very sharp turn towards Tokyo. Judging by the smile on the ceremonial photo of Yoon Suk Yeol taken during the meeting with Kishida, he has not quite come to his senses after the above-mentioned “wishes” and “advice”.

The Tripartite Summit

The trilateral summit meeting between the PRC, Japan and the RC on 27 May resulted in the adoption of a lengthy (38-point) joint statement in rather general terms on the equally general theme of “for all good and against all evil”. Among the specifics, the following paragraphs attracted attention

6, which states the resumption of the regular functioning of all the mechanisms of this trilateral platform;

9, on the intention to extend its membership to other countries, in particular Mongolia (paragraph 20);

23, which reaffirms the Parties’ commitment to “open, transparent, inclusive, non-discriminatory and WTO rules-based multilateral trade”;

24, which refers to the resumption of the negotiation process for a trilateral free trade agreement. Which, we repeat, has been under discussion for most of the past decade.

At the press conference immediately following the meeting, the document was commented on by the participants themselves, each of whom emphasised their specific concerns.

The author’s commentary on the most general plan boils down to the fact that the prospect of realising “all the good things” described in the document under discussion will depend to a decisive extent on the emergence of positive trends in the political situation in bilateral relations (primarily in Japan-China relations) and in the East Asian region as a whole.

So far, however, it has been very difficult to identify such trends, if they exist at all. In particular, the very fact of the negotiations in Seoul can be seen as such. But the process of transforming political realities is determined not by words but by deeds.

The US factor

Meanwhile, this process depends to a very large extent on another participant in almost everything that happens in East Asia, namely Washington, which was absent from the negotiating table in Seoul. And this “other player” (again, so far) is behaving in such a way that the very emergence of positive political trends in the region is highly doubtful.

This is evidenced by the economic war unleashed by Washington against Beijing, which both of China’s negotiating partners in Seoul are forced to join in one way or another. Efforts to form anti-China military-political configurations (with the increasingly active participation of Japan) and the US position on the problems arising from the status of Taiwan and territorial disputes in the South China Sea also work in the same direction.

At the same time, positive activity in the Chinese direction is imitated in the form of maintaining the negotiation process with China at ministerial level. Its almost permanent participants are A. Blinken and J. Yellen. Defence Minister L. Austin will join them on the sidelines of the next regular “Shangri-La Dialogue” in early June, which is held annually in Singapore under the auspices of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. It has since been announced that the Chinese defence minister will also attend this time.

Although, we repeat, even such an imitation of business activity in the form of maintaining lines of communication between the two leading world powers is still “better than nothing”.

Apparently, this comment could also be used to assess the series of events that took place in Seoul at the end of May. However, a more or less definitive answer to the question of the condition of the “patient”, which in this case is the “PRC-Japan-RC” configuration, will only be possible as real events unfold in the East Asian region.


Vladimir TEREKHOV, expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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