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Foreign Policy

Stabilising the Northeast Asian Region through A Trilateral Framework of Strategic Bilateral Engagement

Jun 28, 2024
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

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South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced a joint statement at the ninth trilateral summit of the three East Asian nations on May 27, 2024.

In 2008, the leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea declared their commitment to holding an annual trilateral meeting for regional cooperation – though the fixture has been interrupted over recent years by a combination of factors, including the pandemic and vitriolic diplomatic disputes.

On May 27, Chinese Premier Li Qiang, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol attended and led their respective delegations to the Ninth Trilateral Summit Meeting between the three countries – the first since December 2019.

Wherefore Northeast Asia?

To understand the significance of the trilateral relationship requires us to examine more closely the recent trajectory of regional relations within Northeast Asia, a region whose 20th century history has largely been defined by embittered histories, acrimonious disputes over territory and the legacy of war, and extensive animosity over mutual suspicions of territorial and geo-strategic intentions.

All three are pivotal economic, military, and strategic powers in East Asia. Looming in the background is the United States, whose military presence in South Korea and extensive influence in shaping the post-war reconstruction and political developments in Japan have granted it outsized access and leverage over all three key stakeholders in the region. As Sino-American relations warmed considerably throughout the 1990s (with a brief interregnum towards the turn of the millennium) and early 2000s, so too did Sino-Korean and Sino-Japanese ties – albeit with clear undercurrents of jingoistic resentment. 

Both Japanese Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda, with the former having been at Japan’s helm for almost a decade, pledged to facilitate active rapprochement between Japan and the rapidly growing economic powerhouse that was China. In 2008, General Secretary Hu Jintao’s visit to Japan culminated in a joint statement declaring that China and Japan “resolved to face history squarely, advance toward the future, and endeavour […] to create […] a ‘mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.’”

Towards the end of the 2000s, Beijing increasingly recognised Seoul as an open and critical interlocutor in the U.S.-driven Northeast Asian (and subsequently Indo-Pacific) order that was aimed at curtailing China’s geo-strategic influence in North Asia and the Northern Pacific. Reciprocally, both Presidents Park Geun-hye (2013 – 2017) and Moon Jae-in (2017 – 2022) had sought to position the country as a deft balancer between the China-led economic ecosystem, and the U.S.-driven ‘Western’ coalition of security partners. Such shifts made economic sense, as China had been the primary trade partner of South Korea since 2004, and was perceived by many in the Blue House – across partisan divides – as a critical linchpin in ameliorating tensions over the Korean peninsula.

Yet the fragile equilibrium was swiftly disrupted by a raft of factors that drove Seoul and Tokyo closer over recent years, and both towards the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent barb-trading between Chinese diplomats and online commentators, and their counterparts in South Korea and Japan, precipitated a swift deterioration in perceptions towards China in both countries. Indeed, negative perceptions of both Japan and China in South Korea had surged throughout the late 2010s and 2020, whilst Japan stands out as amongst the countries in which China has the highest unfavourable ratings (87% in 2023).

With the return to the White House of President Joe Biden – a more conventional and multilateralist leader than President Donald Trump, yet who nevertheless opted to maintain the adversarial turn in China policy initiated by his predecessor – Washington has sought to draw together the expressly right-wing populist government under Yoon and the precipitously Sino-skeptical, post-Abe Liberal Democratic Party cabinet in Japan under Kishida. Both politicians saw in the U.S. prospective economic, technological, and military-security assurances against what their advisors viewed to be Chinese aggression.

Such efforts were cemented by the announcement of the Camp David Principles – a security pact unveiled in August last year, which bound the three states to a set of security agreements in affirmation of the role of the U.S. in Northeast Asia. Beijing in turn reacted through doubling down on stiff rhetorical condemnation and trenchant emphasis upon its rightful security interests. Throw into the mix simmering talk of possible nuclear tests from an increasingly unstable and Russo-aligned Pyongyang, as well as incendiary verbal spars over the Fukushima wastewater release by Japan – and we have here a perfect cauldron of geopolitical strife.

Assessing the Significance of Recent Rapprochement 

Despite the byzantine grievances and differences between them, China, Japan, and South Korea remain deeply intertwined. All three parties are cognisant of the need for a floor to regional tensions: both Kishida and Yoon must deal with explicitly low approval ratings, with the latter’s party having suffered a humiliating defeat in the recently held legislative elections. Li Qiang has the substantive mandate of repairing the confidence of private entrepreneurs and consumers, as well as ensuring the attainment of the 5% GDP target, in China. Any drastic escalation in trade – let alone kinetic – warfare, would be counterproductive towards their domestic agenda.

The 2024 Trilateral Summit was significant for several reasons. First, it featured a distinct reorientation in Beijing’s attitudes towards South Korea – as Stimson Centre’s Yun Sun, also a fellow China-U.S. Focus contributor, emphatically highlighted in noting that as compared with the punishment laid out over Seoul’s installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in 2016, Beijing has adopted a more conciliatory and accommodative tone in its interactions with the incumbent Blue House.

Second, the resultant Summit Joint Statement and select readouts from the delegations over their bilateral meetings demarcated clearly areas of prospective collaboration – including pandemic preparedness and intellectual property (IP) cooperation. Whilst some would take issue with the purportedly triviality and technicality of such areas, we should remember that multilateral relations are best forged through achievable and demonstrable ‘wins’ that transcend or bypass ideological squabbles.

Third, all three parties agreed on the need for more regular high-level working meetings and summits between bureaucratic departments and divisions within the three governments. Most notably, their education ministers convened on June 15th, to promote digital education and bolster education exchanges amongst their youth. The hope is that the ensuing inter-ministry and inter-bureaucratic cooperation and liaison could demonstrate that there is more to the recent summit than mere talk and ‘goodwill fostering.’

In Defense of Bilateral Dialogues within a Trilateral Engagement Framework 

A core explanation for the ‘success’ in the summit, and one that is worthy of further scholarly exploration, is the emphasis upon bilateral dialogues as the anchoring and preceding platforms for discussion. Yoon met with both Li Qiang and Kishida separately prior to the main summit.

At the Li-Yoon meeting, the two parties covered issues that are more specifically relevant to them both, establishing clear expectations, guardrails, and specifications of domains of convergent interests in which Japan has less of an active stake. From high-end manufacturing, new energy, artificial intelligence, and biomedicine – industries valued by China as core pillars of its nascent industrial policy, and where China may find more complementarity with South Korea than with Japan. Li Qiang clearly indicated a desire that Seoul refrained from decoupling, in exchange for bolstered market access and legal protection of investor interests in China. Whether such pledges and offers are taken up remain to be seen.

Similarly, within the Korea-Japan bilateral talks, it is reported that both states have sought to calibrate a more sophisticated balancing approach between China and the U.S. – identifying ways in which they can maintain a straddle without being forced to ‘choose.’ Whilst some would dismiss talk of strategic autonomy on the part of both Japan and Korea, they should not underestimate both the actual and aspirational degrees of agency both powers’ bureaucratic apparatuses possess in relation to the Sino-American rivalry. Kishida and Yoon are well aware of the need to engage and address the concerns of those skeptical of their hitherto largely effusive embrace of the United States.

Fundamentally, bilateral engagement is a necessary complement to – and is plausibly more useful than – the trilateral talks between the parties. Trilateral dialogues feature more jockeying and strategic calculations by the participants, with less transparency, less directness, and reduced focus on areas of genuine interest and salience to different parties. Bilateral conversations are necessary in narrowing the agenda, establishing a modicum of working trust, and enabling diplomatic negotiators to pave over finer differences that ought to be deprioritized for the time being. Going forward, bilateral mechanisms should be leaned into more explicitly in the facilitation of regional peace in Northeast Asia. 

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