The foreign ministers of South Korea, Japan and China held a meeting in Busan on Sunday to discuss the matter of holding a trilateral summit, but ultimately failed to agree even on a rough schedule. This shows the reality of relations between the three countries.
Their meeting was held about four years and three months after the last one in China in August 2019. Its symbolic significance is not small, considering heightened security concerns in Northeast Asia in the wake of North Korea's launch of a military reconnaissance satellite and its annulment of a military confidence-building deal with South Korea.
It is also meaningful in that South Korea is trying to extend its diplomatic axis from the United States and Japan to China. South Korea is a bit estranged from China largely due to strained US-China relations and the conflicting positions of Seoul and Beijing on North Korea. Confrontation between South Korea, the US and Japan on one side and North Korea, China and Russia on the other has lessened Seoul's diplomatic ambiguity and reduced room for maneuvering in its relations with China and Russia.
The three ministers agreed to speed up preparations for a summit without fixing its date. Though they came together after a long hiatus, there was neither a joint press conference nor a dinner. China is said to have refused to attend the events, citing Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s busy schedule. It is uncommon in view of diplomatic custom to refuse a joint press conference and dinner. It is questionable if China does not want to be seen standing side by side with South Korea and Japan, which are strengthening their cooperation with the United States.
The three countries launched their summit in 2008 and then took turns hosting it to discuss ways to expand cooperation in various fields. In the last summit in Chengdu, China in 2019, they adopted a document featuring a 10-year vision of trilateral cooperation.
The summit was then discontinued over the following four years.
Meanwhile, the countries lost much of their momentum for cooperation. As the US competes with China for global hegemony, Northeast Asia has become more confrontational between two camps -- South Korea, the US and Japan versus North Korea, China and Russia. In this situation, China did not place too much value on cooperating with South Korea and Japan. Also, China's export curbs on such key minerals as gallium and germanium threw cold water on trilateral cooperation.
South Korea restored its relations with Japan through the Yoon Suk Yeol government’s decision to compensate Japan's colonial-era forced labor victims on its own without involving Japanese firms. But there was no breakthrough in Seoul-Beijing relations.
Uneasiness in trilateral ties can largely be attributable to China. It is shaking the existing international order by pursuing hegemonic policies that clash with policies of South Korea and Japan. In 2016, Beijing found fault with South Korea's self-defensive deployment of a US anti-missile system, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, and imposed retaliatory sanctions against South Korean companies doing business in China. This broke relations between South Korea and China.
Cooperation among South Korea, China and Japan was sluggish in the fields of politics and security, but their economic interdependence is still high. The countries have a lot of issues to solve through discussion and communication, including trade, industry and culture issues and sensitive matters such as North Korea and Taiwan.
Governments of South Korea, Japan and China must unravel these complicated mutual problems in view of common interest and through their summit, as well as foreign ministers' meetings.
When it comes to a trilateral summit to solve issues through cooperation and communication -- the sooner, the better. Holding a summit at least once a year would be good for all three countries. It must be held regularly even when there are disagreements on some issues.