• 23 Jun, 2024

The trilateral summit measures South Korea's diplomatic shift.

The trilateral summit measures South Korea's diplomatic shift.

Essentially, to foster stability and growth in China-South Korea relations, both sides must steadfastly adhere to the overarching goal of friendly cooperation. This is not a matter of choice but an essential obligation for both parties to fulfill.

The Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea (ROK), Cho Tae-yul, is set to embark on a visit to China from May 13 to 14, as announced by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian on Friday. According to Yonhap News Agency, aside from discussions regarding the development trajectory of bilateral relations, supply chain collaboration, and the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, the two parties will also engage in talks and coordination concerning the upcoming trilateral summit involving China, Japan, and South Korea. Earlier statements from South Korean officials indicate that the ninth China-Japan-South Korea leaders' meeting is tentatively slated to take place in Seoul from May 26 to 27, with active preparations underway among the three nations. This development has been positively received in South Korea, with some public sentiment suggesting that the South Korean government is striving to strike a balance in its foreign policy approach.

Since assuming office, the current administration of South Korea has championed a "value-based" diplomacy, reinforcing the US-South Korea alliance, enhancing ties with Japan, and adopting a firm stance towards North Korea with the support of the US and Japan. However, in its relations with China, this government has shown a lack of foresight, aligning itself with certain regional "mini-groups" and following the lead of the US and Japan in engaging in matters related to Taiwan and the South China Sea. As highlighted by South Korean media, despite engaging in unconditional allied diplomacy with Western countries, including the US, the treatment it has received in return has not been ideal, prompting introspection within South Korea. With communication channels being restored between China and the US and other Western nations, there are growing calls for the South Korean government to recalibrate its diplomatic approach.

It is worth acknowledging that since last year, when South Korea assumed the role of the rotating chair for trilateral cooperation among China, Japan, and South Korea, it has demonstrated a strong willingness to revive high-level dialogues. The trilateral foreign ministers' meeting, convened for the first time in over four years on November 26 last year in Busan, South Korea, reaffirmed the consensus on cooperation and committed to laying the groundwork for the leaders' meeting. This meeting marked a significant stride towards revitalizing trilateral cooperation. Subsequently, the three parties have continued to coordinate the timing of the leaders' meeting, with South Korea diligently fulfilling its responsibilities as the chair this year and maintaining communication with China and Japan.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the initiation of China-Japan-South Korea cooperation, signifying a significant milestone. Established amidst the Asian financial crisis in 1999, trilateral cooperation has persevered through challenges, yielding tangible outcomes. Today, it stands as the most institutionalized, comprehensive, and substantive multilateral cooperation framework in Northeast Asia, encompassing the leaders' meeting at its core, 21 ministerial meetings, and over 70 dialogue mechanisms, spanning more than 30 areas including trade, logistics, culture, education, environment, technology, and health.

However, since the eighth meeting held in Chengdu, China, in December 2019, the trilateral summit among China, Japan, and South Korea has been on hiatus for four and a half years. Throughout this period, cooperation among the three countries has encountered obstacles, reflecting the intricate national dynamics and geopolitical complexities in Northeast Asia. With the Russia-Ukraine conflict lingering and heightened US efforts to contain China since last year, tensions on the Korean Peninsula persist, and indications of camp confrontation in Northeast Asia are becoming more evident. The resumption of high-level dialogue among China, Japan, and South Korea will not only inject much-needed political impetus into trilateral cooperation but also help dispel the notion of camp confrontation among certain countries and dispel the specter of a "new cold war" looming over Northeast Asia.

Moreover, this summit presents a rare opportunity for the South Korean government to recalibrate its diplomatic approach, particularly concerning its bilateral engagement with China. To leverage this trilateral summit for the improvement of China-South Korea relations, South Korea must demonstrate greater sincerity and take concrete actions. Establishing a conducive political environment and social atmosphere for bilateral dialogue is imperative to ensure the summit achieves its objectives.

Despite the prevailing political conservatism and vigorous American persuasion, some figures in the South Korean political arena are growing increasingly wary of and competitive towards China. They echo the "China threat" narrative propagated by the US and Japan and align with the mindset of "relying on the US to contain China," posing challenges to South Korea's pragmatic and comprehensive approach to China and the management of bilateral relations. However, China and South Korea are indispensable neighbors, an objective reality that remains unchanged. After over three decades of diplomatic ties, China and South Korea have evolved into deeply integrated partners with intertwined interests and supply chains. Strengthening dialogue and communication at all levels and safeguarding overall cooperation between the two sides are shared imperatives. Fundamentally, to stabilize and enhance China-South Korea relations, both parties must consistently anchor themselves to the overarching goal of friendly cooperation. This is not a discretionary matter but a mandatory endeavor for both sides to undertake.

During last year's trilateral foreign ministers' meeting among China, Japan, and South Korea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi outlined the direction of trilateral cooperation with three key principles: serving as "pacesetters" of East Asian cooperation, advocating for open regionalism, resisting ideological divisions, and steering clear of bloc politics; serving as "stabilizers" to uphold regional peace and security, and resolving differences through peaceful dialogue and consultation; and serving as "relief valves" to address hotspot issues and prioritize de-escalation efforts to pave the way for dialogue resumption. It is hoped that as the chairing country, South Korea will uphold these principles and actively contribute to the success of the meeting.