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PoliticsSouth Korea

Chinese, Japanese leaders visit South Korea to boost ties

May 26, 2024

The Chinese and Japanese premiers have arrived in Seoul ahead of a rare trilateral summit. The meeting, the first such one in five years, indicates a desire for increased regional cooperation.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, center, and South Korea's 1st Vice Foreign Minister Kim Hong-kyun, right, walk past members of an honor guard as Kishida arrives for a trilateral meeting in Seoul
Japan and South Korea have been working to mend ties frayed by historical disputesImage: Lee Jin-man/AP/picture alliance

Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrived in the South Korean capital, Seoul, on Sunday for talks, with the first trilateral summit in five years to be held on Monday.

Meetings during their visit are expected to focus on improving cooperation between the three countries rather than on the many geopolitical challenges facing the region.

The three neighbors last held a three-way top-level meeting in late 2019. An initiative to hold an annual summit from 2008 to boost cooperation has been periodically disrupted by diplomatic rows and the coronavirus pandemic.

What has been discussed so far?

At a two-way meeting between South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Li, who is making his first visit to South Korea since taking office in March 2023, the leaders agreed to establish a diplomatic and security dialogue and resume talks on a free trade deal.

"China and South Korea face significant common challenges of the international affairs," Yoon said, pointing to increased uncertainty in the global economy owing to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. 

But he said he hoped the two countries "will continue to strengthen our cooperation amid today's complex global crisis."

Li said Beijing wanted to work with Seoul to become "a good neighbor worthy of trust on a mutual basis."

Kishida also met with Li, telling reporters after the talks that he had stressed the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait for members of the international community including Japan. 

He said he also asked Li for the early release of Japanese citizens held in China and expressed concerns to Li over "over China's increasingly active military presence around our nation." 

In the bilateral meeting between Yoon and Kishida, the South Korean leader said exchanges between Japan and his country had "dramatically increased over the past year," notably in the area of tourism.

He said he hoped to see a "historic turning point" and a further deepening of ties when the two countries mark the 60th anniversary of a post-war normalization deal between Tokyo and Seoul in 2025. 

Kishida said it was vital for the two countries to boost their cooperation "to better prepare for global issues while maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific."

All three countries looking for common ground despite geopolitical complications

The three countries have a complex joint history, and the trilateral summit scheduled for Sunday appears to be a bid to find common ground amid a myriad of regional tensions, both historical and current.

Yoon, in power since 2020, has worked toward reconciliation with former colonial power Japan as both countries faces a growing threat from nuclear-armed North Korea under its leader Kim Jong Un.   

Chinese Premier Li Qiang arrives for a trilateral meeting in Seoul
South Korea and Japan want better ties with China because it is their biggest trading partnerImage: Lee Jin-man/AP/picture alliance

For its part, China is North Korea's largest trading partner and a key ally.

However, the talks are expected to largely steer away from issues related to the North-South tensions. An official from Seoul's presidential office said such matters were "difficult to resolve cleanly and quickly in a short time" and that the summit would center more on economic cooperation.

The official agenda also does not include issues such as China's claim to self-governed Taiwan and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

According to the presidential office, the focus will instead be on people-to-people exchanges, climate change, trade, health issues, technology and disaster responses.

The three leaders will adopt a joint statement on the six areas including the economy and trade, science and technology, people-to-people exchanges and health and the aging population, Seoul officials said.

tj/lo (Reuters, AP, AFP)