The trilateral summit traditionally covered soft, non-political issues so there was never high expectations that thornier issues related to security, or conflict would make it to the agenda

Andrew Yeo, Centre for Asia Policy Studies

Andrew Yeo, a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation chair of Korea studies at the Brookings Institution’s Centre for Asia Policy Studies, said the joint statement expressed the desire to “institutionalise”, or to hold the event on a regular basis.

“Although the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral may be seen as somewhat superficial, it will promote lower level dialogue among senior officials, and also encourage important people-to-people exchanges”.

“Those lower level ties are still important even if larger diplomatic relations are broken”, Yeo said, noting that the summit provided an opportunity for the three leaders to hold dialogues both in a bilateral and trilateral format.

“The trilateral summit traditionally covered soft, non-political issues so there was never high expectations that thornier issues related to security, or conflict would make it to the agenda,” Yeo said.

It was a positive sign that China agreed to mention the denuclearisation and the abduction issues on North Korea, he said.
“I was struck though that the statement referred to settlement on the Korean peninsula rather than unification – probably since North Korea no longer seeks reunification and China would not support South Korea’s formulation of unification.”

Responding to calls on it to denuclearise, Pyongyang said on Monday such a goal has “already died out theoretically, practically, and physically”, calling it a “grave political provocation” that would speed up a military confrontation.

03:10

Trade and Taiwan discussed at 3-way summit for Chinese, Japanese and South Korean leaders

Trade and Taiwan discussed at 3-way summit for Chinese, Japanese and South Korean leaders

Stephen Nagy, a professor of politics and international studies at the International Christian University in Tokyo, said given the intensification of the US-China strategic competition, the summit “superficially had the right optics”.

“Any meeting is better than no meeting,” Nagy said, adding that the summit’s primary goal was to return to some level of dialogue between the participants, with Beijing hoping to encourage Japan and South Korea to distance themselves from the US.

“Japan and South Korea are engaging to avoid the perception that they are not engaging with China … future summits will continue along those lines with little progress,” he said.

Nagy said China appeared to be reluctant in addressing more contentious issues such as the Ukraine war, UN sanctions on North Korea and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

South Korea and Japan would only affirm a commitment to open markets and supply chain cooperation, in response to China’s concerns about US economic security policies.

(From left) Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Chinese Premier Li Qiang attend the business summit at the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Seoul. Photo: Reuters
Earlier this month, to encourage China to eliminate its unfair trade practices on technology transfer, intellectual property and innovation, the US raised tariffs across strategic sectors such as steel and aluminium, semiconductors, electric vehicles, batteries, and critical minerals, solar cells.
“[South Korea] and Japan have committed to selective diversification away from China in technology and other key areas,” Nagy said, adding that China’s position on Ukraine remained unchanged.

“Unsaid but of deep concern in Beijing are anxieties about a Russian defeat and what that means for its security.

“Beijing fears that a defeated Russia would leave it stranded in the international order with no close friends,” Nagy said, noting that if Russian President Vladimir Putin was deposed through a defeat, coup or assassination, China would be concerned that the next leader would be “even more nationalistic, unstable and conflict oriented”.

“It is a nightmare scenario for China”, he said.

He noted that Beijing had shown a “great power autism” by telling Seoul and Tokyo that their security anxieties about China were misunderstood or that they were being “lied to” by the US.

“This kind of comment is insulting for both Tokyo and Seoul as it sends the message that they do not have autonomy in foreign policy which is completely false,” Nagy said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in Beijing on May 16. Photo: Reuters
China has often accused South Korea and Japan of tilting towards the US. Last year, Chinese ambassador Xing Haiming accused Seoul of leaning excessively towards the US and damaging its relations with China, its largest trading partner.

In a report on Tuesday, China nationalistic tabloid The Global Times taunted Seoul’s eagerness to report the outcome of this week’s trilateral summit to the US, saying it reflected “diplomatic immaturity”.

Seoul on Monday said Japan, South Korea and the US would hold a trilateral vice foreign ministerial meeting in Virginia on Friday.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said China, Japan, and South Korea share interests in increasing exchanges beneficial for the environment, public health, and economic growth.

“However, China’s assertive foreign policies made it difficult just to schedule the summit, so deliverables were limited”, he said, adding that the leaders’ green light to various working-level officials was a positive development.

“Yet, the sustainability, institutionalisation, and effectiveness of trilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia depend on concrete progress in the coming year and holding the next summit in Japan on schedule”, Easley said.

Since the Camp David summit in the US last August, South Korea and Japan have significantly aligned their foreign policies with the US, Easley said, noting that “Washington can trust its allies in their diplomatic efforts with Beijing”.

The trilateral summit underperformed in coordinating approaches to restarting negotiations with Pyongyang over its growing nuclear and missile threats, he said.

“For geopolitical reasons, China was unwilling to join South Korea and Japan in condemning North Korea’s impending military satellite launch that would clearly violate UN Security Council resolutions.”