KOREA NEWS Economics tipped to headline China, South Korea and Japan...

Economics tipped to headline China, South Korea and Japan foreign ministers’ talks

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The two heads of state met in San Francisco last week for the first time in about a year, pledging to resume military-to-military communications in a sign of improved ties.

“That this [trilateral] summit follows after the Xi-Biden meeting is noteworthy as both Japan and South Korea are US allies so I think there is some positive diplomatic and political momentum,” Loh said.

Japan and South Korea have in recent years sought closer security ties with the US as concerns over China’s growing regional influence swell, a move that Beijing has warned will increase tensions in the region.

The three countries held annual summits from 2008 until 2019 to foster regional cooperation but the meetings were suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the South Korean foreign ministry, the ministers planned to trade opinions “extensively on the direction of [the] development of trilateral cooperation” and regional and international situations. It said bilateral meetings would take place on the sidelines of the event.

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Wang Yiwei, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, suggested that the improvement in US-China relations would have an “immediate effect” on China’s ties with Japan and South Korea.

He expected the leaders to push for further economic integration, particularly in the digital economy, where all three Asian nations are leaders.

One option, he said, would be to accelerate talks for a long-delayed free-trade agreement between the region’s three largest economies, a process that began in 2013.

Wang noted that as the world moved towards “global regionalisation”, with economies split into regional blocs, it was natural and beneficial for China, Japan and South Korea to build stronger economic ties.

“China must seize the strategic opportunity of the easing of Sino-US relations and actively promote cooperation with Japan and South Korea,” he said.

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Yongwook Ryu, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said economics was the main factor driving the resumption of the trilateral talks.

“All three economies have been struggling, and the situation is likely to worsen in 2024. Hence they have a common interest in promoting bilateral trade,” he said.

Ryu said the meeting was also related to the shift in Washington’s China policy from decoupling to de-risking. Both Japan and South Korea would search for ways to boost trade with China within the parameters of the de-risking policy.

Yet, despite the countries’ shared interest in trade, strategic considerations would undergird Tokyo and Seoul’s interactions with Beijing as they were “critical allies” of the US and played a key role in Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, he added.

China, Ryu suggested, would seek cooperation in the technology sector from its two neighbours. But at the same time, Beijing would “try to drive a wedge between Japan and South Korea on the one hand and the US by arguing that the US’ China policy would hurt [their] interests”.

“I remain doubtful, however, how much diplomatic relations between the three countries could improve, given the deep-rooted mutual distrust and the constraints imposed on Japan and South Korea due to the US-China strategic rivalry.”

Loh, from Nanyang Technological University, said North Korea would likely feature on the agenda, especially with Pyongyang’s announcement this week that it had launched its first spy satellite into orbit.

While the resumption of the high-level talks between the three countries was a positive step, Renmin University’s Wang warned that restoring ties could be a long way to go.

He noted that leaders in Tokyo and Seoul could face pressures from Washington, saying they had been “coerced to integrate” with the US.

The situation in the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait would also affect ties between the three countries, he said.

“Once there is an issue [in those areas], the cooperation between China, Japan and South Korea will be affected,” he said.

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