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China, Japan, and South Korea vow to seek progress on FTA

Written by Nikkei Asia Published on   4 mins read

The East Asian powers aim to “institutionalize” summit meetings after long hiatus.

Header photo source: Japanese Cabinet Office via Nikkei Asia.

Japan, South Korea, and China held their first joint summit in over four years on May 27, seeking deeper commercial ties to bolster their economies, including by aiming for progress in stalled negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA), but with Seoul and Tokyo also using the occasion to criticize North Korea over a planned satellite launch.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol hosted Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Seoul. None of the three were in office for the last three-way gathering in December 2019, just before the Covid-19 pandemic, in Chengdu, China.

In a joint statement released after the summit, the three leaders agreed to “institutionalize” three-way cooperation by regularly holding the trilateral summit and ministerial meetings, saying that Japan will host the next leaders’ meeting. They also said they will continue discussions for “speeding up negotiations” for an FTA, aiming for an agreement that is “free, fair, comprehensive, high-quality, and mutually beneficial.”

The three countries announced in November 2012 the launch of the negotiations. But the talks stopped after the 16th round, held in November 2019. China has called for restarting them as its economy has weakened. The halt in the talks came amid trade frictions between the US and China and was also affected by the pandemic.

Choo Jae-woo, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at Kyunghee University in Seoul, said that the wording of the May 27 statement does not indicate the three countries have moved any closer to achieving an FTA. To reach such a breakthrough, China would need to upgrade its representation at the trilateral talks, with President Xi Jinping, the country’s most powerful figure, taking part instead of Li, Choo said.

“Without Xi’s bargaining power, I don’t think we can expect any progress [toward an FTA],” Choo told Nikkei Asia.

On the bright side, Choo said it was encouraging that “a variety of communication channels were set up or announced to be resumed,” specifically involving young people. That, he said, indicates “the three countries recognize the importance of enhancing mutual understanding” and “presumably agreed that it is time to be more future oriented.”

Separately, Yoon and Kishida used post-summit remarks to decry Pyongyang, which had notified Japan of its plan to send a space satellite toward the Yellow Sea and east of the Philippine island of Luzon between May 27 and June 4.

The South Korean president called on the North to refrain from carrying out the launch.

“All launches that use ballistic missile technology directly violate UN Security Council resolutions and undermine regional and global peace and stability,” he said. “If, in spite of warnings from the international community, North Korea proceeds with the launch, then I think the international community must respond decisively.”

Kishida, meanwhile, strongly urged North Korea to abandon the plan, also saying a launch would violate UN Security Council resolutions.

North Korea is a long-term shared concern of the three countries. While China has been North Korea’s staunchest ally dating back to the 1950–1953 Korea War, Pyongyang is South Korea’s main adversary, while Japan also sees it as a threat.

Junya Nishino, an expert on South Korea and director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Japan’s Keio University, said North Korea’s satellite launch announcement is likely aimed at driving a wedge between the summit participants.

“North Korea expects that this issue will expose differences of opinion by China, Japan and South Korea,” Nishino told Nikkei. “It is likely to be meant to restrain this trilateral framework.”

The joint statement does not mention North Korea by name, but it contains a reference to the three countries agreeing on the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” saying that peace and stability in Northeast Asia “serves our common interest and is our common responsibility.”

The statement says Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo also agree to work toward a “political settlement” of the “Korean Peninsula issue,” an apparent reference to seeking negotiations as opposed to force or arms.

The countries also “reaffirmed [their] commitment” to “an international order based on the rule of law and international law.”

Despite the attempt to move forward on a range of issues, including climate, public health, and science and technology, broader regional tensions could be seen in some exchanges on May 26, when the leaders held bilateral talks. Kishida, for example, told Li that “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait are of utmost importance to international society,” just after China held large-scale military exercises targeting Taiwan in the aftermath of the self-governing island’s inauguration of Lai Ching-te as its new president last week.

As host of the gathering, Yoon has tried to emphasize what the three countries have in common and the potential benefits of closer cooperation.

In his meeting with Li on May 26, Yoon highlighted how the countries need to bolster their shared mechanisms for protecting supply chains for key minerals and other raw materials.

The summit also builds on Yoon’s pursuit of improved relations with Japan since taking office two years ago in order to move beyond frequent tensions over historical issues related to Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910–1945.

This article first appeared on Nikkei Asia. It has been republished here as part of 36Kr’s ongoing partnership with Nikkei.


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