Trilateral Summit Between South Korea, Japan, China Stalls in Busan

BUSAN – The foreign ministers of South Korea, Japan, and China convened in Busan on Sunday to discuss plans for a trilateral summit. However, they failed to finalize even a tentative schedule, underscoring the complex dynamics of relations between the three nations.

According to Yonhap News Agency, this meeting occurred approximately four years and three months after their last gathering in China in August 2019. The meeting holds symbolic importance amidst rising security concerns in Northeast Asia, especially following North Korea's launch of a military reconnaissance satellite and its termination of a military confidence-building agreement with South Korea.

The discussions in Busan also signal South Korea's diplomatic efforts to expand its focus from the United States and Japan to include China. Tensions in US-China relations and differing stances on North Korea have somewhat distanced South Korea from China. The regional alignment, with South Korea, the US, and Japan on one side, and North Korea, China, and Russia on the other, has diminished Seoul's diplomatic flexibility, particularly in its dealings with China and Russia.

The ministers agreed to expedite preparations for the summit, yet no date was set. Notably, there was no joint press conference or dinner following the meeting, reportedly due to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's schedule. This departure from usual diplomatic practices raises questions about China's willingness to align publicly with South Korea and Japan, both of whom are strengthening ties with the United States.

Since its inception in 2008, the trilateral summit has been a platform for discussing cooperation across various fields. The last summit in Chengdu, China, in 2019, culminated in a document outlining a 10-year vision for trilateral cooperation. However, the summit has been on hiatus for the past four years, leading to a loss of momentum in cooperative efforts.

Amidst the US-China rivalry for global dominance, Northeast Asia has seen increased confrontation, affecting cooperation. China's export restrictions on minerals like gallium and germanium have further dampened trilateral relations.

South Korea's recent efforts to mend ties with Japan, including compensating colonial-era forced labor victims without involving Japanese firms, did not yield a similar breakthrough in Seoul-Beijing relations. China's pursuit of policies deemed hegemonic by South Korea and Japan, particularly evident in its response to South Korea's deployment of the US anti-missile system THAAD in 2016, has strained relations.

Despite political and security challenges, the economic interdependence between South Korea, China, and Japan remains significant. The nations face numerous issues requiring dialogue, including trade, industry, culture, and sensitive geopolitical matters involving North Korea and Taiwan.

The governments of South Korea, Japan, and China are urged to address these complex issues in their mutual interests through summits and ministerial meetings. Regularly holding trilateral summits, at least annually, is recommended to facilitate cooperation and communication, even in the presence of disagreements.

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