The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] Why do we need the trilateral summit?

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 30, 2023 - 05:31

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The Korea-China-Japan foreign ministers' meeting was recently held in Busan, with considerable expectations at home and abroad. At the first meeting in four years, the ministers reaffirmed trilateral cooperation and held in-depth discussions on cooperation measures.

It is a welcome diplomatic achievement that the three major countries in Northeast Asia met and discussed peace and prosperity amid anxiety over the wars in Europe and the Middle East.

However, it is also necessary to point out that they failed to schedule a summit, the culmination of trilateral cooperation. The ministers agreed to accelerate talks to prepare for the summit. Still, progress has not been made beyond the consensus to hold a convenient and earliest summit in deputy ministerial-level talks in September.

The reason the trilateral summit could not be scheduled might be that Korea-China relations continue to be uncomfortable.

The fact that China and Japan held a summit in the wake of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco earlier this month, but Korea and China could not hold a summit, shows the inconvenience.

However, Korea and China share a common interest: maintaining friendly and cooperative relations with each other is beneficial. In the case of South Korea, a divided country, it is challenging to manage inter-Korean relations smoothly if relations with China, an influential sponsor for North Korea, are not maintained positively. Cooperation with China is a national duty in that China is as important as the United States in establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. In addition, given that Korea is dependent on foreign trade and China is the largest trading partner, Korea needs to live well with China.

It is advantageous for China to manage Korea-China relations too. In a strategic competition with the US, China has a task to overcome US pressure wisely.

If Korea turns to completely pro-US policies of checking China, the burden on China will be increased. In addition, if China wants peace and stability, Korea can be the best partner because the North Korean issue along with Taiwan issue is the region's most significant source of instability. Even from an economic point of view, China needs Korea. Since Korea has just climbed into the advanced countries while experiencing a similar path to China, close cooperation with Korea can significantly reduce trial and error in China's national development.

Why is the relationship between the two nations uncomfortable when there are overflowing benefits for them? The US-China strategic competition is one reason. Korea and China face considerable difficulties as the United States is Korea's only ally, and China its biggest companion. However, considering that the strategic competition began in 2018, it is worth noting that Korea-China relations managed to maintain until the early months of 2022.

We must remember the economic attack from China on Korea regarding the deployment of the US' THAAD anti-missile system in 2017. At that time, China's wild economic pressure caused significant losses in the Korean economy, and hatred toward China in Korean society increased significantly. However, given that diplomatic and economic exchanges between Korea and China continued even after the THAAD saga, the attack is also not a fatal cause of the failure of the Korea-China summit in San Francisco.

The Yoon Suk Yeol government's China-related policies may be seen as the starting point of the problem. The government has pushed for a readjustment of Korea-China relations, claiming that China has not shown respect in relations with Korea. However, China's harsh response continued as high-ranking officials of the Yoon government frequently raised remarks that unnecessarily provoked China, focusing on Taiwan issues.

If the causes are identified, ways to solve the problem can also be prepared. Regarding the US-China strategic competition, Korea has a narrow space to engage in, considering the size of the national power. However, both the US and China agreed on the principle of avoiding head-on conflict. There can be areas for cooperation. It will be possible to find a space where Korea, a vital ally of the United States and a top partner with China, can serve as a felicitous coordinator.

The Chinese government should be highly interested in the issue of Koreans' disgust with China regarding the THAAD pressure. Diplomatic efforts should be made to improve the negative image of China imprinted on Koreans through public diplomacy programs.

The Yoon government's foreign policy is the most accessible area because it can be implemented immediately if the president decides.

How will it change? First, it would be good to change the name of Korea's national security strategy as China is dissatisfied with Korea’s adopting the Indo-Pacific strategy, a policy of checking China by the United States and Japan. Second, it is better to avoid unnecessary comments on the Taiwan issue, which China considers a core interest. It is wise to maintain strategic ambiguity as Korea promised to respect the "one China policy" like other countries in establishing diplomatic relations with China in 1992. Third, developing various communication channels for close consultation with China is needed.

The atmosphere for improving Korea-China relations has already been created.

In particular, the relatively positive change in China's attitude toward the Korea-China-Japan summit since August might be the window of opportunity. An important thing in improving Korea-China relations is the Korea-China summit, and an unnecessary war of nerves is underway between the two countries over the venue of the meeting.

The Yoon government emphasizes that it is China President Xi Jinping's turn to visit Korea. China insists that Korea should create a good atmosphere, saying that Xi made his promise to the previous President Moon Jae-in, so that Xi does not necessarily have to visit Korea now that Moon's term is over.

In such a situation, if Korea-China-Japan summits come to Korea, a Korea-China summit will naturally take place. The trilateral summit could be a lubricant for solving Korea's and China's complex diplomatic tasks without inducing concessions.

We look forward to the efforts of Korean and Chinese diplomatic officials.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at the Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.