China-Japan-South Korea Trilateral Summit: Implications for Regional Security

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The dust has settled from this week’s Japan-China-South Korea trilateral summit in Seoul, and the “breakthrough” of resuming the once-a-year meeting after a five-year hiatus paved the way for substantive regional cooperation. Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, and Chinese Premier Li Qiang issued a joint statement reiterating plans to hold regular trilateral summits, frequently canceled due to the nations’ deteriorating relations. During the summit, the three leaders discussed economic cooperation and trade renewal to minimize regional friction. The summit symbolized the three countries’ efforts to rebuild a partnership based on economic cooperation, regional peace, and security. The world has shifted substantially since 2019. During the years-long gap, geopolitical competition between Washington and Beijing has grown, leading to strained relations between China and the two US allies: Japan and South Korea. Due to the Ukraine war and the Taiwan crisis, the regional security landscape of East Asia is evolving quickly with growing militarisation and strategic rivalry. China has displayed its military muscle and pushed its territorial ambitions in the South and East China Seas, while the US, Japan, and South Korea have intensified combined military drills and improved missile defense and other security cooperation. Hence, there is a growing urge for regional cooperation among these East Asian economic giants going beyond their historical animosity and regional conflicts. The conclusions of this trilateral summit may have a considerable impact not only on intra-regional dynamics but also on East Asia’s global positioning in the face of shifting allegiances and increasing socioeconomic concerns. Against such a backdrop, the summit would mark a watershed moment in the full restoration of a three-way cooperation framework.

Major Takeaways from the Summit

The trilateral meeting reaffirmed that all countries long for improved relations. The joint declaration specified seven areas of mutually beneficial cooperation, including people-to-people interactions, sustainable development, economic cooperation, public health, research and technology, digital transformation, and disaster assistance. The presidents agreed to prioritize mutually beneficial trade and investment and a forward-looking free trade agreement. The discussions focused mostly on areas where common ground might be established, such as preserving supply chains, encouraging trade, and collaborating on the challenges of aging populations and new infectious illnesses. China also wanted to accelerate negotiations on a free trade pact with Japan and South Korea. The joint statement’s economic focus reflects significant progress on regional security, international order, and the rule of law. Japan and South Korea have designated 2025 and 2026 as years of cultural exchange, with ambitions to raise the number of people-to-people exchanges to 40 million by 2030 through tourism and other collaborative cultural leadership events. This summit can provide these countries the opportunity to strengthen cooperation among people to people given that the public level relations are not as strained as it is perceived. Japanese PM Kishida stated that the three countries share a significant responsibility for regional peace and prosperity. The decision to hold this summit every year from now can be regarded as a positive signal which provides room for negotiations amid geopolitical tensions.

What Does It Mean for Regional Security?

Surely, the fundamental purpose of this summit was to restore some kind of communication among the participants. There was a consensus regarding the necessity of North Korea’s demilitarisation. The fact that Pyongyang informed Japan’s Coast Guard of plans to launch a satellite during the trilateral meeting heightened Japan’s concern about North Korea’s advancing nuclearization. All leaders agreed that the stability of the Korean Peninsula was in everyone’s best interests. Till now, China rejected language supporting the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, most likely to avoid aggravating North Korea. However, during the summit, they recognized that Pyongyang has learned an important lesson from the Ukraine conflict: states that possess nuclear weapons are less likely to be invaded. Therefore, South Korea and Japan have urged China, to use its economic might to assist curb Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

Another important factor is the growing strategic rivalry between China and the USA in East Asia. The summit occurred against the backdrop of a growing rivalry between the United States and China for semiconductor supremacy. Washington has erected a wall of barriers to prevent Beijing from obtaining the latest semiconductors and sophisticated equipment required to manufacture the most advanced processors. During a prolonged trade dispute between China and the United States, the US has urged partners to “de-risk” by diversifying away from Chinese supply chains. Ties with Seoul have recently expanded rapidly, with Yoon taking the initiative to move past historical difficulties and strengthen trilateral collaboration with Japan, South Korea, and the United States. However, China continues to maintain a strong posture on national security matters. China’s aspirations to increase economic cooperation derive from growing concerns about a potential long-term economic war with the United States and its allies. Japan has become increasingly isolated in East Asia as a result of protracted diplomatic disagreements with China and South Korea, which have brought bilateral relations to a historic halt. More recently, it has fought China’s import restriction on Japanese seafood in response to the leaking of treated effluent from the wrecked Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant into the ocean. At the same time, Japan has long-standing territorial disputes with China over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) and the Takeshima Islands (Dokdo in South Korean). This summit was a breakthrough in melting the ice among these three neighbors. China hopes to attract Japan and South Korea by providing greater market access while reducing Washington’s influence. To that aim, China has agreed to initiate talks on a free-trade deal among the three countries, emphasizing more economic cooperation as a means of preserving regional peace and stability. China intends to utilize this arena to persuade Japan and South Korea to separate themselves from the US and interact with China on an economic and cultural level.

The summit illustrates the delicate balancing act that South Korea and Japan experience when China is their largest economic partner. Both states have a security relationship with the United States, which stationed tens of thousands of troops in both nations and increased military training with them in the last year.  Japan and South Korea, for their part, are attempting to avoid the perception of being demanding. Japan and South Korea have 80,000 American troops on their territories, but their politicians are under pressure from businesses seeking better access to China. Hence, Japan and South Korea are still trying to accommodate China in the regional arrangements as isolating China will just intensify the security dilemmas in the region. The economic dependency and the spillover of cooperation from the economic to security domains can create a peaceful environment regarding the matter of the Taiwan and Korean peninsula crisis. China, Japan, and South Korea must understand the significance of regional cooperation for a prosperous and stable East Asia.

East Asian neighbors, responsible for more than one-fifth of global economic production, require regional stability and cooperation, particularly in supply chains, to emerge from the post-pandemic economic downturn. As these three countries manage these complicated issues, one thing is certain: they must find common ground, despite their differences, if they are to move forward successfully in an increasingly multipolar world. Participating in this kind of trilateral summit can be a successful attempt to deal with regional geo-political tensions.

– Saume Saptaparna Nath is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA). She is on Study Leave for Pursuing Her Higher Studies in Japan.

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