South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (center) speaks during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (left) and Chinese Premier Li Qiang at the guesthouse of the former presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae, in Seoul on Monday. Image Credit: Presidential Office

Leaders of South Korea, Japan and China met for an important summit — their first gathering since 2019, in Seoul at the end of May. Korea was represented by President Yoon Suk-yeol, Japan by Prime Minister Kishida and China was represented by Prime Minister Li Qiang.

While President Yoon aimed to enhance Korea’s reputation as a “global pivotal state” the Chinese Prime Minister focusing on economic engagement, hoped for a “restart and a new beginning” in relations between the three major economies of Asia.

He also called for the comprehensive resumption of cooperation between the three countries that are among the economic power houses in the world.

The East Asian trilateral summits started in 2008 during the global financial crises, when nations felt a compelling need to consult and coordinate policies in the wake of the crises. The series lost momentum after the fifth summit in 2012. The sixth could only be held in 2015. The summits met again in 2018 and 2019 not to return till now.

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North Korea’s shadow

A significant development, albeit bilateral, occurred when both President Yoon and Prime Minister Li agreed to establish a regular dialogue between the two countries involving foreign and defence ministers of China and Korea. The 2+2 meeting shall take place mid-June.

Along with the major commercial relationship a regular security relationship can only help ease Korea-China misunderstandings.

Though not physically present North Korea’s shadow loomed large over the meeting. As the three leaders met in Seoul, North Korea in its inimitable theatrical timing attempted to launch a spy satellite into space, which exploded after take-off.

The leaders of Japan and Korea condemned the test and called for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Both Japan and South Korea worried at North Korea’s advances in nuclear and missile technology have long held this aspiration. Even, “to discuss the denuclearisation … constitutes a grave political provocation and sovereignty violation,” said the DPRK spokesperson.

The biggest success of the summit was to agree on resumption of negotiations of the free trade pact among the three. China is the biggest trading partner for both Korea and Japan.

Free-trade agreement

The idea of a free-trade agreement among the three makes economic sense. It is therefore, in their interest to maintain healthy relationship with China. “The resumption of negotiations towards a trilateral FTA may be regarded as a positive step for all involved.

These three nations have long proved that they can get along very well in terms of trade and investment,” said Dr. Minseon Ku, an expert on foreign policy and international security at Dartmouth College in the United States.

Given the neighbourhood and the extent of relations Korea and Japan will do well despite the rivalry between Washington and Beijing. It would be good for the peace in the region.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Le Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as an ambassador to several countries.