Korea-Japan-China Trilateral Summit

Seoul Trilateral Summit: Rekindling Cooperation Amidst Challenges in Northeast Asia

June 6, 2024

► Revival of Trilateral Summit: After a four-and-a-half-year hiatus, South Korea, Japan, and China held a trilateral summit in Seoul, marking the ninth such meeting since its inception in 2008. The summit included trilateral discussions and parallel bilateral meetings, focusing on enhancing peace, stability, and economic cooperation in East Asia.
► Challenges and Achievements: Despite fundamental differences in each country's priorities and the absence of China's top decision-maker, the summit resulted in a joint declaration emphasizing the need for regularized meetings and cooperation on various cross-border issues, including climate change, economic trade, and disaster relief.
► Future Cooperation and Key Issues: The summit reaffirmed commitments to advance FTA negotiations and highlighted the necessity of overcoming historical disputes, territorial issues, and geopolitical tensions for sustainable cooperation. The hope is that ongoing dialogue and practical cooperation frameworks will strengthen regional ties and stability.


For the first time in four and a half years, South Korea, Japan, and China met for a trilateral summit in Seoul last week, complete with trilateral talks and parallel Korea-China and Korea-Japan summit meetings. As the only annual summit at the head-of-state level among the three countries, it aims to contribute to peace and stability in East Asia, strengthen economic cooperation and relations, and enhance disaster response measures. The first meeting was held in Japan in 2008, and the meeting last week was the ninth summit between the three countries. Although the focus is on economic and cultural exchanges rather than political issues, the summit was canceled in 2013-14 due to historical disputes between South Korea and Japan and the Senkaku sovereignty dispute between China and Japan. Since the meeting in Chengdu, China in 2019, the three countries did not meet due to the COVID-19 pandemic and deteriorating South Korea-Japan and US-China relations.


Considering the combined economic might of South Korea, Japan, and China and the situation in Northeast Asia, cooperation among the three countries is extremely important. This is particularly true in the Northeast Asian environment, where cooperation is challenging due to disputes over history, different political systems, and differing views on North Korea's nuclear issue, making this summit an important platform for official exchanges of opinion. The three countries have significant international influence, together accounting for one-fifth of the world's population and nearly one-quarter of global GDP and trade volume. Although the North Korean nuclear issue exacerbates difficulties among the three countries, their continuous dialogue and cooperation can contribute to peace, stability, and prosperity not only in Northeast Asia but also globally.


There are, however, fundamental differences in the priorities each of the three countries places on cooperation. South Korea aims to establish relations with neighboring countries to achieve stability on the Korean Peninsula and seeks cooperation in Northeast Asia, focusing on resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. China, as a global power, focuses on regional cooperation to compete for hegemony with the United States and continues to strengthen its maritime power to check the U.S. Japan aims to cooperate in the Indo-Pacific region to contain China and secure regional leadership, and it values cooperation in 'East Asia,' which includes Southeast Asia, more than 'Northeast Asia.' These differing perceptions and strategies among the countries are undeniably major challenges to expanding cooperation.


Nevertheless, at their long-overdue meeting, the three countries adopted a joint declaration containing thirty-eight items aimed at regularizing summit and ministerial meetings and activating various cooperative projects. Although it is not a joint statement, it is significant that the necessity of trilateral cooperation and issues concerning the Korean Peninsula were officially documented in a joint declaration, expressing each country's assertions and intentions. Given China’s initial reluctance to participate due to South Korea-Japan cooperation, bringing them to the table and laying the groundwork for restoring cooperation through an agreement to regularize meetings was a major achievement. Additionally, the three countries agreed to identify cooperative projects covering cross-border issues such as expanding human exchanges, responding to climate change for sustainable development, economic and trade measures, health and aging strategies, science and technology, digital transformation, and disaster relief and safety. South Korea also fostered an atmosphere to lead cooperation by utilizing the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS) established in Seoul.

Of course, not everything at the summit went according to plan. The attempt to overcome inherent weaknesses in the countries’ relations–which make it difficult to maintain momentum when conflict elements such as historical issues, territorial disputes, deteriorating public sentiments, and escalating US-China tensions arise–fell short of expectations. Moreover, while South Korea’s President and Japan’s Prime Minister attended the summit, China was represented only by the Premier of the State Council, who does not exercise the highest decision-making power, thereby diminishing the summit’s impact. Although it is the only multilateral meeting where the three countries can officially exchange opinions at the highest level, the absence of the highest level of China’s leadership limits the ability to reach more groundbreaking political and macroeconomic agreements. China argues that the dispatching of their Premier simply reflects protocol, but the rank disparity needs to be addressed going forward if the advantages of this summit are to be truly realized. 

Even so, we should not let that undermine the spirit of trilateral cooperation. In the past there has been criticism that China has not been supportive of the phrase 'denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula' and has maintained a passive stance by continuing efforts towards a ‘political resolution’ of the Korean Peninsula issue. For South Korea, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula means denuclearizing North Korea, but for China, it emphasizes denuclearization of the entire peninsula, including the deployment of strategic assets by US forces in South Korea. The fact that China agreed at the summit to include the term 'denuclearization' in the official trilateral document can be seen as a tacit acknowledgment of South Korea's persuasion regarding North Korea's denuclearization. North Korea's immediate backlash against the joint declaration as an 'act of sovereignty infringement' indicates that it perceives the phrase 'denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula' as a trilateral agreement among South Korea, Japan, and China.

It is significant that the countries reaffirmed their intentions to advance the second phase of the Korea-China and Korea-Japan-China FTA negotiations, related to expanding the cultural and legal markets. Particularly from South Korea's perspective, for the negotiations to resume, it would be necessary for China to first address business environment issues, such as the restrictions on Korean cultural content. South Korean companies would stand to benefit massively from such a change. In addition, the establishment of multiple communication channels, such as high-level diplomatic security dialogues, the launch of an export control dialogue, and the resumption of the Investment Cooperation Committee between South Korea and China, along with agreements on practical economic cooperation between South Korea and Japan, are also noteworthy achievements.

However, there are still key points of contention that need to be overcome. To make real progress, it is essential for the three countries to move beyond the mutual perception that fundamental cooperation is off the table until conflict elements such as historical issues, territorial disputes, and geopolitical competition are resolved. These conflicts cannot be resolved merely by one country's temporary policy shift. Without a shared vision for trilateral cooperation, emphasizing only each country's goals, the sustainability of cooperation is not guaranteed. The concept of 'managed competition'--aimed at preventing US-China conflicts from escalating–might also be beneficial if implemented in trilateral relations.

The key lies in how effectively these trends of trilateral and bilateral cooperation restoration can be implemented. The rise of China as a major power, the strengthening of the South Korea-US alliance, the US-Japan alliance, and the trend towards reinforced trilateral cooperation among South Korea, the US, and Japan clearly clash with each country's respective vision. At the same time, it is an acknowledged fact that the three countries remain central to East Asia, with increasing economic, cultural, and human exchanges inevitably creating more intersections in the future. The hope is that the annual trilateral summit, painstakingly restored through South Korea's efforts, will advance with substantive working-level discussions, building consensus and establishing a framework for practical cooperation, marking a new starting point for the region.


Professor of Chinese Studies at the Graduate School of International Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (韩国外国语大学)and Head of the International Research Center(国际地域研究中心). Commentator in Chinese and international issues on media outlets. He earned his M.A and Ph.D degrees from the East Aisa Research Institute(东亚研究所) of the National Cheng Chi University(国立政治大学)in Taipei, Taiwan. His main major field is contemporary Chinese political economy and International relations in Northeast Asia. He served policy advisor to the National Security Office Adviser to the President's Office and Korea Foreign Ministry, and a member of the National Assembly's foreign affairs advisory committee, the Korea Navy Development Committee. There are about 20 books and more than 100 academic papers.