As Korea and Japan work to resolve their differences, their neighbor China has been watching very carefully. After the summit, the Chinese foreign ministry emphasized the need for stable economic relations for prosperity between Beijing, Seoul and Tōkyō. “China opposes certain countries’ attempts to form exclusionary cliques,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin at a press briefing. “We hope Japan-ROK ties will move forward in a way that is conducive to regional peace, stability and prosperity.” Despite these restrained comments, experts say Korea will have to confront looming obstacles to manage its regional relationships, especially given the Yoon administration’s desire to hold a trilateral summit in the near future.
However, the rapprochement between Korea and Japan comes at a sensitive time for the region because of the U.S.-China competition. Susan Thornton, a Senior Fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School said that the remark by the foreign ministry is a standard one to a question about Beijing’s neighbors. But she also said that Beijing is still watching to see “how that relationship gets tied into the broader U.S.-Japan and U.S.-Korea hub and spoke system, and whether it adds to…what they perceive as a U.S. threat to China coming from those relationships or not.” China’s fear about containment by the Americans and their allies is underlined by the Spokesman Wang’s reference to “exclusionary cliques” in his remarks. “I don’t necessarily think that the Chinese, when they look at this development, actually think this is good or this is positive development for regional peace and stability,” said Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center.
Besides these regional issues, there are also bilateral challenges to managing Sino-Korean relations. Taiwan remains a sensitive issue for China, and is one that Korea has been reluctant to address. But in a recent interview with Reuters, President Yoon emphasized support for the status quo of the Taiwan Strait. “The Taiwan issue is not simply an issue between China and Taiwan but, like the issue of North Korea, it is a global issue,” he told the wire service in an April interview. China was predictably upset, and the foreign ministries have traded stern statements.
The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) is another long-standing issue that has rankled bilateral relations. China retaliated economically against Korean firms in response to the system’s deployment because of concerns the radar would be directed at China, despite Korean and American objections. Despite agreeing to normalize economic relations as part of the “Three Noes” understanding with the previous Moon administration, China is still taking steps to undo certain actions, such as as the recent decision to allow Korean video games back onto the Chinese market. But Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says THAAD remains a critical stumbling block to improving Sino-Korean relations. “It’s like an underwater pier, just below the surface that is right next to the main pier, that you can snag your boat on if you’re not careful,” he said. “The Chinese are still holding it…as an impediment to a better China-Korea relationship.”
Chinese wariness towards Korean intentions raise challenges for President Yoon Suk Yeol’s goal of holding a trilateral China-Japan-Korea summit. This objective was first outlined in the Indo-Pacific strategy his administration published in December. The Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat was established in September 2011 to support positive relations between China, Korea, and Japan. There have been eight summits under the aegis of the TCS, with the most recent being in 2019. “With the improvement in the Korea-Japan relationship,” Mr. Snyder said, “we can even imagine that trilateral China-South Korea-Japan meetings could be somewhat revitalized after a period during which it’s been difficult to hold those kinds of meetings.” According to public reports, Korean officials have been diligently reaching out to their counterparts in Japan and China. In early April, one told the Yonhap News Agency that a summit could be held as early as this year if there were no “major obstacles.”
A trilateral summit would be a chance to jump start diplomacy and focus on regional issues concerning all three states. “These are the three biggest players in Northeast Asia, so they have a ton of things to talk about,” said Ms. Thornton. Economic security is a key issue to the three states, and Ms. Thornton says the leaders could discuss coordinating both between them as well as with regional groupings like ASEAN and APEC. The regional security situation also deserves attention, with perennial topic North Korea possibly being on the agenda. Ms. Thornton also noted that President Yoon and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan are still early in their tenure. Diplomacy is not just about solving problems, but also “tending relationships, having communication, understanding signal sending, and understanding what’s going on around you,” she said. “If they don’t meet in person, there’s a lot that gets missed.”
Other experts say that it will be difficult to entice China to engage meaningfully in a trilateral setting. “China doesn’t have the best relationship with either South Korea or Japan,” observed Ms. Sun. “Why would China want to participate in such a leadership summit?” She said that China may be content with engaging with Korea and Japan bilaterally, pointing out that President Xi Jinping has already held bilateral summits with both President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali last November. “If China accepts the invitation [to a trilateral summit] from President Yoon, it would be considered that everything that he has said about Taiwan has been forgiven,” said Ms. Sun. “I really don’t see that the stars are aligning at this time,” she added.
China will always be important to Korea, given its geographic proximity. Management of that relationship is complicated by China’s competition with the United States, a key ally of Korea. The Yoon administration’s call for a trilateral summit with China and Japan suggests that Seoul thinks it can still maintain balance between Beijing and Washington. “He’s rhetorically aligned with the U.S., but it doesn’t necessarily mean that South Korea’s interests align with those of the U.S. as related to China in every aspect,” said Mr. Snyder. This careful dance of maintaining stability between both sides while also advancing Korean interests shows no sign of stopping soon.
Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo by iamlukyeee from Shutterstock.