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[Wang Son-taek] Five takeaways from the trilateral summit

By Korea Herald

Published : May 30, 2024 - 05:30

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The trilateral summit between South Korea, Japan, and China held in Seoul, Korea, earlier this week was the first such event in four and a half years since 2019, and it has significantly positive implications for the resumption of the platform for peaceful coexistence and prosperity among the three countries. It was also a successful diplomatic event for the Republic of Korea, raising expectations for peace and stability in Northeast Asia and restoring Korea-China relations. However, it is necessary to precisely calculate gains and losses and analyze each country's results because the trilateral summit's success may vary depending on the future diplomatic development of each country.

1. Restoration of the platform for Northeast Asia Cooperation

Northeast Asia, where two Koreas, China, and Japan live side by side, has been at the forefront of the US-China strategic competition since 2018, where even military tensions have been rising on the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Since the inauguration of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration in South Korea in May 2022, Korea-China relations have been worsened, and predictions of a so-called new Cold War structure, South Korea-US-Japan vs. North Korea-China-Russia, would never stop.

Such concerns have been eased as China, unlike North Korea and Russia, showed a passive attitude toward anti-US solidarity and have been further reduced in the wake of this trilateral summit. So, the summit is highly welcome. If platforms or programs exist for cooperation between Korea, China and Japan, excessive concerns about the new Cold War will disappear.

2. South Korea, the biggest beneficiary

Due to its geopolitical characteristics, South Korea's national difficulties increase as the confrontation between the United States and China intensifies. South Korea wants to avoid forming an antagonistic relationship with China because achieving the national goal of establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula will be difficult. The fact that the leaders of Korea, China, and Japan met and discussed ways to cooperate shows that Korea has achieved some results in managing peace on the Korean Peninsula.

However, if Korea fails to execute follow-up measures with the United States, the summit's benefits could go astray. From the perspective of the US, China attended the summit to crack the Korea-US-Japan cooperation. So, the US has a legitimate reason to doubt the Yoon government's policy line after the summit. Therefore, the Yoon government should explain to the United States that it will faithfully implement its promises and commitments with the US to maintain the trust between Korea and the US.

In the Korea-China relationship, Korea should show a mature attitude that does not unnecessarily provoke China regarding the Taiwan or THAAD issues. Although the mature attitude is inconsistent with the existing one, it is the right direction for the national interest. Moreover, since China's premier has virtually lost the status as a national leader since October 2022 and is only the second in command, the recovery of Korea-China relations can be recognized by holding a summit with President Xi Jinping.

3. China shows off its calm diplomacy

China benefited from the trilateral summit as much as South Korea. China is in trouble due to difficulties inside and outside, including strategic competition with the US. Against this backdrop, China might think this summit could create a rift in the Korea-US-Japan trilateral cooperation that would pressure China. Another score is that the Yoon Suk Yeol government has frequently provoked China since the government's inauguration two years ago. Beijing seemed to seize the opportunity to change Korea's attitude while Seoul was begging China to attend the summit.

In the meantime, China also takes a burden from the summit: North Korea. The North recently proposed China join an anti-US solidarity, but the North was dissatisfied with China's passive reaction. The North is angry as China participated in a summit in Seoul where the North labeled it as an enemy and discussed denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which could be regarded as a betrayal from the North's perspective. North Korea's launch of a reconnaissance satellite in time for the summit might be interpreted as an expression of anger against China.

4. North Korea turns loser as it exposes impatience

Though North Korea did not attend the summit, it attracted the most attention because of its nuclear and missile issues. The North's announcement of a satellite launch during the summit dwarfed the summit itself. As soon as the summit ended, the North launched a satellite, raising its momentum, but failed to launch, imprinting itself as a disgraceful loser at once.

According to North Korean reports, the satellite exploded within two minutes of launch. It appears that the North used a new projectile with Russian technology. However, the launch seems to have been carried out in an unprepared condition. The announcement that there were discussions on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula at the summit may have irritated the North. Anyhow, this shows that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is responding emotionally and impatiently.

5. Opportunity factors for the US

The US, which looks at the trilateral summit from a distance, will feel uncomfortable. This is because the summit implies a possibility that the Korea-US-Japan trilateral cooperation will crack. However, viewing the Korea-China-Japan summit as utterly hostile to the US is a big mistake. If the US aims to ruin China, the summit will disadvantage the US. However, if the US goal is to make China obedient to the US-led international norms, the summit will rather be helpful. Taming China is a far better option for the US because ruining China is impossible in this interdependent world. Changing China's attitude requires both pressure and persuasion, and the Korea-China-Japan summit can become an effective platform that works simultaneously. If the US can manage communication and cooperation with Korea and Japan closely at the highest level, the US could be the biggest beneficiary of the summit in Seoul.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is an adjunct professor at Sogang University. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.