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China attempts to counter U.S. ties to Japan, South Korea

China’s Premier Li Keqiang, center right, meets with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a trilateral leaders’ meeting between China, South Korea and Japan in Dujiangyan, China, on Dec. 25, 2019.  (Pool)
By Michelle Ye Hee Lee Washington Post

Leaders from China, Japan and South Korea on Monday will hold their first trilateral meeting in more than four years, as Beijing seeks to counteract U.S. efforts to work closely with Tokyo and Seoul – two major American allies in the Asia-Pacific region.

The meeting underscores the balancing act that Tokyo and Seoul are trying to strike as they try to navigate the economic and military competition between Washington and Beijing: Although Japan and South Korea are security allies of the United States and have stepped up joint military drills in the region, they also rely on China as their largest trading partner.

“The opportunity for engagement with Beijing, particularly on economic issues, is attractive to both – but won’t change the larger context of deep concern about China’s actions and intentions, and the shared interest in closer alignment with the United States and with each other,” said Chris Johnstone, former East Asia director at the National Security Council and Japan Chair at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

American analysts say there is no reason Washington should be concerned about the resumption of a routine meeting between the three Asian nations. But the summit also serves as a reminder that U.S. allies have their own interests to manage, they said.

“I don’t think it is a cause for alarm for Washington but it should tell those who are pushing an anti-China axis that our allies have their own interests, and they are not always the same as ours,” said Daniel Sneider, an East Asia policy expert at Stanford University.

The three countries began meeting regularly in 2008 but have not done so since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic and souring relations between Japan and South Korea. In March last year, Seoul took a major step to restore relations with Tokyo out of shared concerns over China and North Korea, paving the way for closer relations with Washington. These moves have motivated Beijing to try to pull them back, analysts say.

Chinese premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrived in Seoul on Sunday for bilateral meetings. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol also hosted a banquet for the leaders. On Monday, they are scheduled to hold a trilateral summit and plan to issue a joint statement, the South Korean presidential office said.

Traditionally, the presidents of Japan and South Korea and the premier of China, who leads the cabinet, have participated in the meetings, which were focused on economic issues rather than security matters. With Li’s power significantly diminished under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, some analysts say the symbolism of the trilateral gathering has become less important. A lot has changed since their last meeting: Russia has invaded Ukraine, China has increased its military aggression toward Taiwan, and North Korea has advanced its nuclear weapons program, leading Japan and South Korea to work more closely with the United States and even set aside their historical animosity for now to cooperate with Washington.

At the same time, Tokyo and Seoul both share an interest in stabilizing ties with China, just as the United States has worked to do.

Japan’s national security strategy calls for a “constructive and stable” relationship with Beijing, especially on maintaining economic engagement. South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy calls for a resumption of the trilateral meetings, and its president Yoon is dealing with sharp divisions among voters and the business community over his steps to draw closer to Washington.

Meanwhile, China wants to revive talks with the two Asian countries given the pressures it faces from Washington’s efforts to slow down China’s technological advance and to counter its military ambitions by forming a coalition of allies and nations throughout the Asia-Pacific region, analysts say.

“The Chinese feel encircled, pressured by the U.S. and its allies. So as for China, it has to push back,” said Yasuhiro Matsuda, international politics professor at the University of Tokyo.

After President Biden declared a “new era” of partnership with the leaders of Japan and South Korea at Camp David last summer, Chinese officials suggested restarting the trilateral meetings, according to South Korean officials.

“The summit will serve as a turning point for fully restoring and normalizing the trilateral cooperation system among South Korea, Japan and China,” South Korean Principal Deputy national security adviser Kim Tae-hyo said during a media briefing last week.

Still, major differences between the three remain. Tensions have risen between China and South Korea under Yoon, who took office in 2022, and is more skeptical toward Beijing than his predecessor. The rapprochement between South Korea and Japan is being tested by a dispute involving two prominent tech companies from both countries. Japan and China are arguing over the release of treated radioactive water off the east coast of Japan.

Yet Chinese scholars say better coordination is important for regional stability, and the three must get along as “inseparable neighbors.”

“Now [we have] the Taiwan issue, the Korean Peninsula issue, the Ukrainian war issue, and the U.S. technology war against China, so we need to discuss them with these two important Asian neighbors,” said Zhu Feng, director of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University.

China will seek to gain support from Japan and South Korea as it faces U.S. efforts to raise tariffs on Chinese imports, including electric vehicles, Zhu said. “The U.S. has suppressed Chinese high-tech companies, including the recent tax increase on EVs, and U.S. policies have become increasingly protectionist.”

Japan is interested in keeping lines of communication open with China, especially given Tokyo’s concerns over potential Chinese military actions in the Taiwan Strait, Matsuda said.

“Japan’s diplomacy is to first establish deterrent frameworks against China, because China’s ambition to take over Taiwan is quite clear,” he said. “Deterrence should be supplemented by … communication.”

Tokyo and Seoul are likely to press Beijing to help rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and help curtail the growing military cooperation between North Korea and Russia.

But Li is unlikely to be receptive: Beijing has shown little interest in blocking North Korea’s military ambitions in recent years. China and Russia have consistently vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions to strengthen sanctions on North Korea for its repeated ballistic missile tests in violation of U.N. prohibitions.

Still, South Korea hopes China will play a greater role on decreasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, said Lim Jeonghee, senior research associate at the Center for Foreign Policy and National Security at Asan Institute in Seoul: “The fundamental thing for Korea will be dealing with North Korea’s cooperation with Russia. South Korea wants China to act more at the Security Council.”

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Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.