08.07.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The China-Japan-ROK trilateral summit on May 26-27 in Seoul Part Three: The Summit between the three leaders and its outcome

South Korea, Japan and China hold a trilateral summit in Seoul

The participants in the trilateral summit discussed ways to promote cooperation in six specific areas: economy and trade, sustainable development (including the response to climate change), healthcare, science and technology, disaster management and security, and exchange programs.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the trilateral summit, Yoon Seok-yeol said: “I hope that our three countries, who are working together as members of the UN Security Council this year, will join forces to contribute to peace and prosperity in the international community by gathering wisdom and strength in the face of a global complex crisis and geopolitical conflicts… I believe that the many challenges we face today at the regional and global levels can also be transformed into new opportunities to promote communication between the three countries and expand the horizons of cooperation.”

Summary of the Joint Declaration

In the “ceremonial part” of the summit the three countries noted that “the previous eight Trilateral Summits held since 2008 and the establishment of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat in 2011 have laid a solid foundation for institutionalizing trilateral cooperation.” They recognized the importance of the current summit, pointing out that “the Republic of Korea, Japan and the People’s Republic of China are neighboring countries sharing everlasting history and infinite future with significant potentials for cooperation across multiple domains.”

Problematic topics were carefully avoided. In paragraph 3, the parties reaffirmed their “commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and to an international order based on the rule of law and international law” and emphasized “the importance for states to abide by their commitments under the international law and agreements among states.” Yoon’s favorite wording, “rules-based order,” was not used in the Joint Declaration.

Although security issues were discussed at the summit, the Joint Declaration referred to geopolitical tensions in general terms, without explicitly mentioning North Korea or Taiwan. “We reaffirmed that maintaining peace, stability and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia serves our common interest and is our common responsibility.”

Then there was the VERY ambiguous phrase: “We reiterated positions on regional peace and stability, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the abductions issue, respectively. We agree to continue to make positive efforts for the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue.”

South Korean media attempted to present this as a consensus on the need for the North’s nuclear disarmament and on the “abductee issue,” attributing to all three leaders the phrase “maintaining peace, stability and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula serves their common interest and is their responsibility, amid continued provocations from North Korea that have undermined regional peace in Northeast Asia.”

The parties agreed on three directions for the development of trilateral cooperation.

Firstly, to institutionalize the process by continuing to hold summits (the next one in Japan is to take place in a year) and regular ministerial-level meetings to discuss “areas such as education, culture, tourism, sports, trade, health and agriculture” as well as foreign affairs issues.

Secondly, to focus on the six areas mentioned above, and, to judge by this list, the parties chose the sensible strategy of “maintaining the current level of relations and cooperating where political differences will present any obstacle.”

They noted that the number of citizens of the three countries participating in exchange programs should be increased to 40 million by 2030, in a bid to develop mutual understanding and trust. These programs include the CAMPUS Asia inter-university exchange program, joint children’s camps, and even training programs for young civil servants. The years 2025-2026 have been declared Years of Cultural Exchange between the three countries.

Another issue they singled out, related to sustainable development block, is the anti-poaching campaign. “We will take decisive and effective measures to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing through various tools.” In view of the activities of Chinese poachers in Japanese and South Korean waters, this is a really important issue.

In the Economic Cooperation and Trade section of the Declaration, the parties reaffirmed their “support for the open, transparent, inclusive, non-discriminatory and rules-based multilateral trading system, with the World Trade Organization (WTO) at its core.” They also noted “the importance of ensuring implementation in a transparent, smooth and effective manner of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement as the basis of a Trilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA).”

In the Public Health section they singled out the joint fight against pandemics and an aging society as among the key issues to be jointly addressed, while in the field of Digital Transformation they recognized the “growing importance of cooperation in science and technology, including Artificial Intelligence (AI)” and noted “the government of the Republic of Korea’s contribution to establishing global governance aimed at ensuring safe, secure, trustworthy, innovative, inclusive, and responsible AI.”

Thirdly, they affirmed their commitment to pursue “Trilateral+X IP Cooperation” to extend the benefits of trilateral cooperation to other countries. Those other “X” countries include both the ASEAN states – the so-called ASEAN+3 format – and Mongolia.


Issues omitted from the Joint Declaration

The summit came just hours after North Korea notified Japan of its plan to launch its military satellite, which Seoul and Tokyo condemn as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions banning any launches using ballistic missile technology.

As a result it was inevitable that this issue should raise its head at the joint press briefing, revealing the differences between the positions of the three leaders. Yoon Seok-yeol did not mince his words, and stated that “all launches using ballistic missile technology directly violate UN Security Council resolutions and undermine regional and global peace and stability,” and the international community should respond strongly to Pyongyang’s actions. Fumio Kishida expressed almost identical concerns: “If it proceeds, it will be a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. We strongly urge North Korea to cease this activity.”

Li Qiang, on the other hand, urged his colleagues not to get excited: “China has consistently worked to promote peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and is pushing for a political resolution to the peninsula issue. Relevant parties should exercise restraint and prevent the situation from worsening and becoming more complicated.” In addition, Li called for joint efforts to foster cooperation based on mutual respect and trust.

As South Korean media noted, this is a marked contrast with the 2019 trilateral summit, in which China expressed support for efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

In addition to the satellite issue, the North Korean issue was also referred to in thinly veiled hints such as Yoon Seok-yeol’s statement to reporters that “to ensure regional peace and security, which is for the common good of all three countries, it is important to achieve a free, peaceful and unified Korean Peninsula.” Yoon has not abandoned his revanchist course of erasing the DPRK from the world map, which he announced in a speech on March 1, 2024.

It has also been reported that Fumio Kishida not only called on North Korea to abandon the satellite launch, but also asked his South Korean and Chinese partners for support in resolving the issue of the abductees, and Li Qiang said that China insists on a political solution to the Korean Peninsula problem, believing that all countries involved, especially the ROK and DPRK, should exercise restraint to prevent the situation from getting worse and more complicated.


Business Forum

On the sidelines of the ninth summit between the three countries’ leaders, the eighth trilateral business summit was held—the first such forum in four and a half years. The participants noted that the new advisory body will be created to enable a joint response to the most serious problems in view of the current geopolitical risks and ongoing changes in the international trade environment. They agreed to cooperate on digitalization, trade and supply chains, pledging to make joint efforts to reduce carbon emissions and address the challenges posed by an aging society to ensure sustainable growth. The ninth trilateral business summit is scheduled to be held in Japan.

On May 27, Chey Tae-won, chairman of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry and head of the SK Group, Masakazu Tokura, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), and Ren Hongbin, chairman of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, announced that they would form a trilateral advisory body to promote economic cooperation.


Assessments of the summit


The DPRK reacted with a press statement issued on May 27 by a DPRK Foreign Ministry spokesman: “Hostile acts of infringing upon our inviolable national sovereignty will never be tolerated.” “As regards the grave political provocation of denying the constitutional position of the DPRK, committed at an international meeting sponsored by the ROK, the DPRK Foreign Ministry strongly denounces and rejects it as a blatant challenge to the sovereignty of the DPRK and wanton interference in its internal affairs.” Therefore “if anyone tries to deny or violate the constitutional position of our country as a nuclear weapons state, preaching the benefits of denuclearization to us, it will be regarded as the most serious infringement upon sovereignty forcing us to renounce our constitution and social system.”

On May 28, South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said the trilateral summit paved the way for strengthening practical cooperation between the neighbors and the “summit marks a turning point in fully restoring and normalizing the trilateral cooperation framework in the post-COVID-19 era.”

First Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo said the upcoming summit would serve as a “turning point” for the restoration and normalization of the trilateral summit and provide an opportunity to resume “future-oriented and practical cooperation” between the three countries.

However, according to a spokesman for South Korea’s official press agency, the trilateral talks are unlikely to lead to a smooth trilateral agreement on North Korea, the denuclearization of its regime and inter-Korean relations.’

South Korean experts said the resumption of the annual summit to strengthen cooperative ties was a positive signal for the three countries, but expectations for a substantive outcome of the summit were relatively low, given the limitations posed by the trilateral summit’s tight schedule and format. But the summits must continue, because they provide an important platform for leaders to advance much-needed cooperation in the region.

Park Cheol-hee, Chancellor of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy, writes in an opinion piece that “rather than sharpening fault lines between the US and China, the trilateral summit may serve as a platform for mitigating tensions between these competing global giants at odds.”


To summarize. Some commentators see the summit as a sign of Seoul’s return to a balancing policy after the failure of conservative forces in the recent parliamentary elections, but this view is belied by the fact that the preparations for the summit began before the elections. The attempt to persuade Beijing to accept the other two countries’ line on North Korea direction, unsurprisingly, yielded no results, but where possible, the parties tried to outline the prospects for regional cooperation and the chance of making progress without everything getting bogged down in words is quite high. Despite its loyalist rhetoric toward the United States, South Korea has no wish to decisively distance itself from the PRC.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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