China, Japan, S Korea Aim to Restart Trilateral Leaders' Summit

China, Japan, S Korea Aim to Restart Trilateral Leaders' Summit

The Lede: The top diplomats of China, Japan, and South Korea gathered in Busan, South Korea over the weekend to discuss resuming their leaders’ summit as the three Asian nations move to strengthen trilateral cooperation amid regional tensions and disagreements. 

What We Know:

  • Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa held bilateral talks on Saturday and met together on Sunday, where they revived plans for their countries’ leaders to meet through an annual summit. The three also agreed their countries would cooperate in six areas: people-to-people exchange, trade, technology, public health, sustainable development and security.
  • In a bilateral meeting on Saturday, Wang and Kamikawa agreed to a China-Japan strategic dialogue, which has not taken place since early 2020. Kamikawa also renewed the demand that China remove its ban on seafood imports from Japan. The ban was in response to Japan’s decision to begin discharging treated radioactive wastewater from its tsunami-hit nuclear power plant in Fukushima.
  • Park asked China to play a constructive role in pressuring North Korea to halt provocations and take steps toward de-nuclearization in a meeting with Wang.

The Background: An annual trilateral meeting among the leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea began in 2008, but went on hiatus after 2019 during the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in tensions among the three countries. Ties between South Korea and Japan deteriorated in 2018 due to re-emerged sentiments from Japan’s colonization of the Korean peninsula. South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay reparations to South Koreans forced to work as slave laborers during the occupation times. The two countries imposed a series of retaliatory measures that affected trade and military cooperation. Relations have warmed significantly in recent months as their leaders made high-profile visits to one another, increasing efforts to move beyond their history. South Korea and Japan perceive North Korea's nuclear-capable arsenal of missiles as a major security threat while China remains North Korea’s last major ally and biggest source of aid as Beijing sees the country as a strategic asset against U.S. influence on the Korean peninsula and in the region at large. On the prior Sunday, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan held maritime drills near the Korean peninsula.

Likely Outcomes:

  • It is likely that the generally positive results of the meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping at their meeting earlier this month smoothed over some of the political stresses between China, Japan, and South Korea and paved the way for this type of dialogue and cooperative intentions. This does not dismiss the serious and persistent geopolitical tensions among these countries given the involvement of the U.S., especially as Japan and South Korea carried out military drills with American forces the week before. Japan and South Korea will likely try to ride any good sentiment with China as far as they can while remaining firmly on the side of the U.S. in the competition between the superpowers. 
  • China’s motivations for shoring up ties with Japan and South Korea likely stem from both economic pressures and security considerations. U.S. trade curbs, domestic slowdowns, and globally decreased demand give Beijing reasons to make friendly terms, especially with its neighbors. With heightened military conditions and more bold U.S. presence in the region, Beijing may also be aiming to dull this aspect of Tokyo and Seoul’s cooperation with Washington. While China may end up with some marginal security conditions with the two countries, the overall alliance structure with the U.S. is likely to remain intact. 


“Korea, Japan and China have the potential for massive cooperation. Our three countries are neighbors that can’t be separated from one another. I hope we can strive together to hold the South Korea-Japan-China summit, which is at the apex of three-way cooperation, at an early date.” - Park Jin, foreign minister of South Korea

"China and South Korea have become cooperation partners with highly integrated interests and highly interconnected production and supply chains. Both sides should jointly resist the tendency to politicize economic issues, instrumentalize science and tech issues, and the broad securitization of trade issues." - Wang Yi, foreign minister of China

Good Reads:

Japan, China, South Korea agree to arrange summit at early date (Nikkei)

Top diplomats of South Korea, Japan and China meet to restart trilateral summit (ABC)

South Korea, Japan and China agree to resume trilateral leaders’ summit, but without specific date (AP)

Diplomats from South Korea, Japan and China will meet about resuming a trilateral leaders’ summit (AP)

China warns South Korea not to politicise economic issues (Reuters)

Japan and China foreign ministers vow to improve mutual ties (Nikkei)