The Ninth China-Japan- South Korea Trilateral− A Chinese Attempt at Détente?

The significance of the Summit lies in the fact of it taking place amid seismic changes unfolding in the Northeast Asian region and the Indo- Pacific as well as the world at large.

May 26 and May 27 saw the coming together of the leaders of China, Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) or South Korea for the Ninth Trilateral Summit between the three important Northeast Asian countries after a gap of four and half years with the last such event having took place in 2019. The significance of the Summit lies in the fact of it taking place amid seismic changes unfolding in the Northeast Asian region and the Indo- Pacific as well as the world at large. These include but not limited to the recent buildup of tensions across the Taiwan Straits, the increasing grey warfare tactics of China in the South China Sea, tensions among the three countries over territorial disputes such as the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Island between Tokyo and Beijing and between Beijing and Seoul over the latter’s vocal positions on Taiwan and the South China Sea (SCS), and an increasingly belligerent North Korea  preparing for war with the ‘principal enemy’ (South Korea).  Adding to this is the looming presence of the US intensifying its alliances with both Japan and South Korea as seen in the recent announcement of the US- Japan- ROK Trilateral  during August 2023 and the Summit between Japanese PM Fumio Kishida and US president Joe Biden in April 2024 which saw Tokyo taking a more active role in matters of defence and security  in the alliance with US. In view of the above, the Trilateral Summit between the three East Asian countries, key players in the global economic and political arena, and the declarations and official statements released hereafter could be seen as a form of détente on the part of China− the largest of the three countries.

Détente refers to the period in Cold War history between 1967 to 1979 which saw the easing of tensions between the then superpowers US and the USSR.  The détente was the result of realization by the latter of the need to limit and regulate the dangerously expanding nuclear arms race and hence the period saw the signing of the important Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) I. In addition, both sides also initiated discussion on other topics such as political delimitation of boundaries, trade and technological cooperation and investment and human rights protection; yet this period was ended by the 1979 Soviet entry into Afghanistan bringing tensions to the fore.

Like the Détente, the current Trilateral Summit has happened in the midst of increasing Sino- US rivalry especially in the Indo- Pacific and Northeast Asian regions. However, unlike the US’s outreach to the USSR, here Beijing has instead chosen to reach out to Tokyo and Seoul− two prominent US allies and neighbours of China. The roots of this outreach can be traced to the China- ROK- Japan Cooperation International Forum held in July 2023 in Qingdao which saw Beijing calling the three nations to ‘revitalize Asia’ and seek ‘strategic autonomy’ from the West. Addressing the Forum, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi asserted that ‘Asia was the common home’ of all the three countries and the latter should ‘uphold mutual respect and live in harmony,…achieve mutual success, uphold self-reliance and independence, unite and strengthen ourselves (the three countries)’ while practicing ‘open regionalism, promoting Asian values, cultivating a sense of strategic autonomy and regional unity and stability’− the focus on Asia and Asian values and autonomy and regional stability are aimed at fostering a common Asian identity vis- a vis the West.

 Also, in an apparent dig at the US, mention was also made of ‘some major powers outside the region have deliberately exaggerated ideological differences and woven various exclusive small circles (reference to US led Asian minilaterals)’ to ‘pursue their own geopolitical interest.’ Hence the three Asian countries should ‘resist the resurgence of Cold War thinking…’ and ‘firmly grasp the destiny of their own countries and regions in their own hands’ or seek autonomy from the US.

The Joint Declaration of the 9th ROK- Japan- China Trilateral Summit released on 27 May outlined three broad directions of action to be taken by the members− the institutionalization of the Trilateral by holding summit and ministerial level meetings frequently, strengthening trilateral cooperation by identifying and implementing cooperation in six areas and the promotion of ‘Trilateral + X Cooperation’ to other countries and geographic areas such as Mongolia and ASEAN. The rest of the declaration goes on to detail the six areas of cooperation identified −people to people exchanges, sustainable development including through climate change response, economic cooperation and trade, public health and ageing society, science and technology cooperation and digital transformation, and disaster relief and safety. In addition, the Summit also released two Joint Statements on Future Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response and on cooperation in Intellectual Property (IP).

For China, the Summit provided an opportunity to double down on the economic linkages between the three countries as a form of balance to the deepening security relationships of Japan and South Korea with the US. This sentiment was particularly visible in the mention of ‘speeding up of negotiations for a Trilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which is ‘free, fair, comprehensive, high- quality and mutually beneficial’ while calling upon Tokyo and Seoul to oppose turning ‘economic and trade issues into political games or security matters’.

Emphasis was also made on ‘keeping markets open and strengthening supply chain cooperation and avoiding …disruptions’ in reference to the US’s coaxing of its allies including South Korea and Japan to put restrictions on the export of chip related advanced technology and tools to China. It was also reiterated in Qingdao where Wang called upon the three countries to ‘resolutely resist the de-coupling and (supply) chain- breaking promoted under various names’. Moreover, initiatives announced such as the Network of Trilateral Cooperation Think-Tanks, the Trilateral ICT and Science and Ministers’ Meetings, academic exchange and joint research and cooperation on IP could facilitate Beijing to deepen the linkages with Tokyo and Seoul on critical technologies like AI and semiconductors. Such deep linkage is expected to prevent both the countries from completely de-coupling with China while allowing the latter access to much needed tools and technological knowhow shared between and developed jointly by the Trilateral.

The deliberations on the Trilateral Summit did not broach topics crucial to the region’s security such as North Korea, Taiwan and the territorial and other disputes between the members mentioned above. Any mention was in the form of generic statements on ‘maintenance of peace, stability and prosperity on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia’ as the ‘common responsibility of all’ and the reiteration of earlier positions on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, the abduction of individuals by North Korea and the political settlement of the Korean issue. The deliberate avoidance of the above contentious issues have led some scholars to opine that the outcome of the Summit was more symbolic than substantial.  This was further highlighted by the North Korean launch of short range ballistic missiles and Pyongyang’s condemnation of the Summit shortly on 30 May. The above instance also underlines the tacit Chinese support enjoyed by Pyongyang which emboldens it to undertake such actions− a fact not lost on Japan and South Korea. This puts serious limitations to the sincerity in Beijing’s actions of détente.

The limitations to the Chinese détente are further bolstered by the glaring opposite positions taken by the other two countries on Ukraine and Taiwan. While Beijing has declared ‘a no limits partnership’ with Russia in 2022, Japanese PM Fumio Kishida had called upon the G7 to fully support the Ukrainian effort against Russia drawing parallels with the strained security situation in East Asia. On Taiwan, the latter has found mention as an important partner for Tokyo as seen in the revised National Security Strategy (NSS) in 2022. Similarly, South Korea has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine thereby showing support and also condemned the Chinese military drills around Taiwan. At the same time, Seoul’s ambition of becoming a ‘Global Pivot State’ (GPS) whose features−a deepened US- ROK alliance as its central axis and the emphasis on ‘liberal democratic values-based diplomacy’ − puts it at odds with Chinese positions in East Asia and beyond.

On China’s part, murmurs have surfaced of a China- Russia- North Korea Trilateral as a response to the US led Trilaterals in the region; however the inherent contradictions between Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang makes it less feasible as of now. But in response to the intensification of US led alliances in East Asia and Indo- Pacific, Beijing has embarked upon its own quest to deepen its ties with the Arab states in West Asia. Such penetration into each other’s perceived spheres of influence would further intensify the Sino- US rivalry. This would further dampen the prospects of any détente in Northeast Asia.

Hence, only time will tell whether the 10th Trilateral Summit in Japan during 2025 will lead to some sort of strategic understanding/ détente between the three countries or merely be reduced to a talking shop.

Anuraag Khaund
Anuraag Khaund
Anuraag Khaund is pursuing PhD in International Politics (IP), School of International Studies (SIS), Central University of Gujarat (CUG).