Seoul Trilateral '24

Leaders of South Korea, China and Japan have concluded a much-anticipated trilateral meeting in South Korea. AMC's Graeme Acton reports from Seoul.

Seoul was a city of motorcades and motorcycle Police today, as the normally chaotic traffic was pushed aside by columns of black limousines carrying leaders to the downtown discussion.

It’s the first such meeting in four years, coming amid a period of heightened tensions in North Asia, and some complex history between the participants.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Seoul were in town, and while no major breakthrough was made, experts say just restarting discussions at the highest level was a very positive sign.

While the leaders met in Seoul , North Korea took the opportunity to announce it will be launching a second satellite by the beginning of next week. North Korea has said it needs spy satellites to monitor South Korea and the United States, and improve guidance of its missles.

Last week, China launched a large military exercise around Taiwan to signal its displeasure regarding the inauguration of a new president - who continues to reject the idea that Taiwan is part of China.

With this backdrop, its not surprising that when South Korea’s President Yoon met with Li for a bilateral over the weekend, the discussion turned to North Korea’s continuing nuclear aspirations, and the deepening relationship with Russia.

The US, Japan and South Korea continue to ask for China to use its economic leverage over Pyongyang to rein in the missile launches and the nuclear programme. Many in the south believe China has no such intention.  

But these sensitive subjects were in the background during Monday’s discussions in Seoul.

Instead the focus was cooperation in areas like people-to-people exchanges, climate change, trade, health issues, and technology.

The China-South Korea-Japan trilateral meeting was intended to be a an annual event after the  first meeting in 2008. But four years have elapsed since the last one – partly due to Covid, but partly also to do with the complex and at times fractious relationships between the three nations. At the centre of that tension has been the recent moves to deepen by Japan and South Korea to develop closer ties with the US.

South Korea and Japan are both key U.S. allies in the region. Their moves to bolster their trilateral security partnership with the United States has drawn rebukes from China.

While trade relations remain strong, analysts say China is deeply concerned about the possibility of Japan and South Korea drifting even further into a US orbit.

China remains the biggest trading partner for both South Korea and Japan. Analysts say China believes any further strengthening of the South Korea-Japan-U.S. security ties would not serve its national interests.

Experts say the three countries all want better relations and while this meeting did not provide any kind of breakthrough, it did ease the tension, and turned the heat down just a tiny bit.

In Seoul, the mere fact this meeting took place is being greeted with a degree of positivity, and in a joint news conference following the meeting, Li confirmed China’s willingness to cooperate with South Korea and Japan on economic and supply chain issues, and the possibility of a FTA between the three nations.

A joint declaration following the summit committed to regularising future meetings and committed to further talks on cooperation in human resources exchange, climate change, economic and trade cooperation, health and aging, scientific and technological digital transformation, and disaster and safety cooperation. 

- Asia Media Centre