China’s PM agrees on cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo, but issues veiled rebukes of their US ties

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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, from left to right, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Chinese Premier Li Qiang attend a business meeting at the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, May 27, 2024. Leaders of South Korea, China and Japan meet in Seoul for their first trilateral meeting in more than four years. | Photo credit: AP

China’s premier agreed Monday to revive three-way cooperation with South Korea and Japan in the face of shared challenges, but issued a veiled rebuke to the two countries’ growing security cooperation with the United States.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang met South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Seoul in what was their country’s first such trilateral meeting in more than four years.

Many experts say that restarting the annual meeting at the country’s highest level and agreeing on the need to improve ties is a positive sign for cooperation between the three Northeast Asian neighbors as they all face face economic uncertainties caused by wars and instability around the world. But how drastically their cooperation will be furthered is unknown, as the three countries face a series of long-standing, complex problems.

At a joint press conference after the meeting, Mr Li said China wants to work with South Korea and Japan on economic issues, especially on supply chains and resuming talks on a three-way free trade agreement.

Mr. Yoon said the three leaders agreed to promote people-to-people and cultural exchanges, establish secure supply chain networks and work together to address shared environmental, health and other issues. Mr Kishida said the three countries share a major responsibility for regional peace and that Japan will chair the next round of the trilateral leaders’ meeting.

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However, despite the apparently friendly atmosphere of the meeting, Mr Li at one point expressed Chinese discomfort over moves by Japan and South Korea to strengthen their security partnership with the US, which Beijing sees as an attempt to form a bloc to block China to keep under control.

“We need honest dialogues to increase trust and resolve doubts. We must uphold the spirit of strategic autonomy and maintain our bilateral relations,” Mr. Li said in comments at the start of the meeting with Messrs. Yoon and Kishida. “We must promote multipolarity in the world and oppose the formation of blocs or camps.”

China is wary of Japan’s plan to deploy 400 U.S. Tomahawk long-range cruise missiles and allow repair and maintenance of U.S. warships in Japan to support their operations in the Western Pacific. The expansion of military exercises among South Korea, the US and Japan has also drawn protests from China.

The trilateral meeting was also briefly overshadowed by North Korea’s abrupt notification to Japan of its plan to launch a satellite early next week, an apparent attempt to put its second spy satellite into orbit.

The UN bans any satellite launches by North Korea, viewing them as disguised tests of the country’s long-range missile technology. North Korea has said it needs spy satellites to better monitor South Korea and the US and boost the precision strike capabilities of its missiles.

Mr Yoon called for strict international action if North Korea goes ahead with the launch. Mr Kishida urged North Korea to withdraw its satellite launch plan. But Mr Li made no mention of the launch plan as he made general comments about promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula through a political resolution.

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South Korea, Japan and the US have long urged China – North Korea’s key ally and economic pipeline – to use its power to convince the North to give up its nuclear ambitions. But China is suspected of fully implementing UN sanctions on North Korea and sending clandestine aid shipments to its impoverished socialist neighbor to stay afloat and continue to serve as a bulwark against US influence on the Korean Peninsula .

During a bilateral meeting with Mr. Li on Sunday, Mr. Yoon asked China to contribute to promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula as he discussed North Korea’s nuclear program and deepening military ties with Russia .

After meeting with Mr Li on Sunday, Mr Kishida also told reporters that he expressed serious concerns about the situation in the South China Sea, Hong Kong and China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. He said Japan is also closely monitoring developments in self-governing Taiwan.

Mr Kishida referred to China’s military assertiveness in the South China Sea, its suppression of pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and human rights abuses against minorities in Xinjiang. Last week, China also launched a major military exercise around Taiwan to show its anger at the inauguration of the island’s new president, who refuses to emphasize that Taiwan is part of China.

As of Monday, Mr. Li still did not respond directly to outside accusations against China’s actions in the South China Sea or around Taiwan.

“China, Japan and South Korea should appropriately handle sensitive issues and disagreements, and take into account each other’s core interests and major concerns,” Li said. “And really construct a real multilateralism.”

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The three Asian countries together represent approximately 25% of the world’s gross domestic product, and are closely linked economically and culturally. But their relations have suffered time and again setbacks due to problems arising from Japan’s wartime aggression. China’s ambitions for greater global influence and a US push to strengthen its Asian alliances have also threatened to damage ties between the three Asian countries.

The China-South Korea-Japan trilateral meeting was supposed to take place annually after their first meeting in 2008. But the sessions have been stalled since the last one in December 2019 in Chengdu, China, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the often complicated ties between the three countries.

Experts say the three countries all want better relations. China is the largest trading partner for both South Korea and Japan. Analysts say China likely believes that further strengthening security ties between South Korea, Japan and the US would not serve its national interests.

“Washington can trust its allies in their diplomatic efforts with Beijing,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “The trilateral summit between China, Japan and South Korea is more about reducing friction than reshaping geopolitics.”

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