Wed, 29 May 2024 Feature Article

China-Japan-ROK summit paves way for enhanced regional cooperation

China-Japan-ROK summit paves way for enhanced regional cooperation

Chinese Premier Li Qiang, ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met in Seoul on May 27 for the ninth trilateral summit so far for the three countries. This was the first such meeting since December 2019.

All three leaders spoke positively of the summit's resumption after a hiatus of more than four years, hoping that it would serve as a new start for the three countries to maintain stability and continuity in their cooperation. They confirmed their commitment to continuously deepen cooperation in six major areas: people-to-people and cultural exchanges, sustainable development, economy and trade, public health, science and technology, and disaster relief.

The leaders also agreed to promptly restart and complete negotiations on a China-Japan-ROK free trade agreement (FTA) to jointly promote regional cooperation, and to work together to address global issues such as climate change. Above all, they expressed a shared desire to make the bilateral relations and trilateral cooperation mutually reinforcing, which will better benefit the three peoples and contribute to world peace and prosperity.

The China-Japan-ROK summit, created to strengthen diplomatic relations and promote economic exchanges between the three East Asian countries, was first hosted by Japan in December 2008. However, the trilateral cooperation process started 25 years ago. The most recent summit before this one, the eighth trilateral summit, was held in Chengdu, China, on Dec. 24, 2019. However, the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the meetings, resulting in a nearly four-and-a-half-year hiatus.

For years, trilateral cooperation has fueled growth not only in the participating countries but throughout the entire region. This collaboration has helped maintain relatively stable industrial and supply chains, thereby promoting global market integration. Since the initiation of trilateral cooperation in 1999, trade among the three countries has surged from $130 billion to $780 billion in 2022, bolstering growth in various industries across East Asia and beyond.

However, in recent years, regional cooperation has been gravely affected by external influences. Driven by strategic calculations to maintain its global dominance and isolate China, the United States has been attempting to "decouple" from China and strengthen its own trilateral cooperation with Japan and ROK. This goal was highlighted by the Camp David joint statement issued after the first stand-alone summit between the U.S., Japan and ROK on Aug. 18, 2023, aiming to contain development of the world's second-largest economy.

Although China remains the largest trading partner for Japan and ROK, external pressures have been hindering trilateral cooperation. For example, in 2023, ROK recorded a trade deficit with China for the first time in 31 years, amounting to $18 billion, a sharp contrast to a $1.2 billion surplus in 2022. ROK's exports to China dropped to $124.8 billion, down 20% from $155.7 billion in 2022, while imports from China fell to $142.8 billion, an 8% decline from $154.5 billion, according to Nikkei Asia. Conversely, ROK's annual exports to the U.S. increased by 5%. In December 2023, monthly shipments to the U.S. exceeded those to China for the first time in 20 years.

The recent substantial decline in trade undermines the primary goal of cooperation among the three Asian neighbors. Currently, the security and economic interests of Japan and ROK are increasingly skewed toward America's push to "decouple" from China. This shift has not only escalated tensions in East Asia but also created trade and economic barriers that impede regional integration.

However, all hope is not lost. At the trilateral summit, the leaders of China, Japan, and ROK had the opportunity to address the disagreements and pressing challenges through dialogue. They reached consensus on many issues, and agreed to embark on a new journey of trilateral cooperation. The summit and its progress are seen as a result of increased reason and independence in both ROK and Japan over the past months.

Considering the scope and complexity of the region's challenges, especially in recent years, it is unlikely the summit alone would be sufficient to eliminate all barriers. However, the gathering of the relevant parties, the first in more than four years, represents a step in the right direction and sends a positive signal for the revival of trilateral cooperation.

For the next step, which is essential for boosting trilateral cooperation, the participating countries must, above all, ensure that political interests, particularly those aligned with external affiliations, are not pursued at the expense of their shared goals.

Although this is something easier said than done, it does not mean nothing can be done. For example, the three countries have demonstrated commitment to the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, established to promote lasting peace, common prosperity, and shared culture among the three Asian neighbors. With the support from all three parties, the Secretariat is operating smoothly and is playing an active role in facilitating exchanges among the nations.

To sustain the momentum gathered at the Seoul summit and enhance trilateral cooperation both now and into the future, the leaders of the three countries should consistently approach political issues with utmost sincerity, guided by the trilateral framework and cooperation.

This recommendation aligns with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's remarks at the 10th China-Japan-ROK Trilateral Foreign Ministers' Meeting in November 2023. He said, "The three countries should promote East Asia cooperation through trilateral cooperation, adhere to open regionalism, oppose ideological demarcation, and resist turning regional cooperation into camp politics." He also said, "The three countries should practice the concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security, and resolve differences and disputes through dialogue and consultation and by peaceful means."

Chinese Premier Li Qiang's suggestion at the summit that the three countries need to respect each other's core interests and major concerns is significant. For ROK, reducing tensions on the peninsula must be among its top concerns. For Japan, security and development are part and parcel of what it cares about the most. For China, its sovereignty, security and development interests are to be firmly safeguarded by all necessary measures, as it has repeatedly stated.

As it is often said, without peace, there can be no development, and without development, there cannot be peace–a clear indication that lasting peace and sustainable development are inseparable. This has actually pointed out the direction for the efforts by the three countries to enhance their relations and consolidate their cooperation. Currently, one specific issue is reconciliation on the peninsula. Just as Premier Li Qiang said at the summit, the current situation on the Korean Peninsula remains tense, and all parties should play a constructive role by staying committed to easing tensions, restarting dialogue as soon as possible, and advancing the political settlement process of the Korean Peninsula issue, so as to safeguard peace and stability in the region.

China, Japan and ROK are home to more than 1.5 billion people and account for more than 20% of the global economy. Therefore, they hold significant potential to contribute to peace and development not only in Asia but globally.

For example, cooperation in science and technology, as well as sustainable development, identified as two out of the six areas discussed at the summit, is vital to the entire world. Enhanced cooperation with China, recognized as a global leader in scientific research and renewable energy, is critical to the fight against climate change. Similarly, a possible trilateral FTA has the potential to boost regional economic gains and enhance global market integration. All of these are essential for peace and sustainable development in the region and the world at large.

All three nations have recently reiterated their support for trilateral cooperation. In particular, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said after the summit that China stands ready to take this summit as an opportunity to work with ROK and Japan to strengthen strategic communication, deepen political trust, and demonstrate a new sense of responsibility and commitment. And it will promote steady and sustained China-Japan-ROK cooperation and make greater contributions to regional stability and prosperity.

With these developments, we can at least be cautiously optimistic that this summit has paved the way for enhanced regional cooperation in the months and, hopefully, years to come.

This article was first published by China’s Diplomacy in the New Era: