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China, Japan premiers arrive in Seoul for summit


By AFP
Published : 26 May 2024 09:46 PM | Updated : 26 May 2024 09:46 PM

The premiers of China and Japan arrived in Seoul Sunday for their first trilateral summit in five years, which is expected to focus on economic issues rather than sensitive geopolitics.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are scheduled to meet with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol separately Sunday afternoon in the South Korean capital.

On Monday the three leaders will hold a trilateral meeting, the first such encounter in five years, partly thanks to the pandemic but also due to long-strained ties between Seoul and Tokyo.

Yoon, who took office in 2022, has sought to bury the historical hatchet with former colonial power Japan in the face of rising threats from nuclear-armed North Korea.

Since the last trilateral summit "our regional and global landscapes have vastly changed," Kishida said before departing for Seoul, saying the new meeting was "highly significant". "I would like to have an honest conversation with President Yoon Suk Yeol and Premier Li Qiang, and agree on working-level cooperation in a forward-looking manner," he said, adding he hoped the meeting would be a "success" and revitalise three-way diplomacy.

Yoon is set to hold a bilateral meeting with Li, who is making his first visit to South Korea since taking office in March 2023, followed by one with Kishida.

The three leaders will have a dinner together Sunday evening.

But experts have warned that due to the three countries' starkly divergent positions on key issues including Pyongyang's nuclear threats and growing ties with Russia, it will be hard for them to form a consensus.

But Seoul and Tokyo, which are key regional security allies of China's arch-rival Washington, are looking to improve relations and trade, plus ease tension with Beijing, experts say.

"The importance of cooperation between the three nations, which account for 20 percent of the world's population and trade, 25 percent of total GDP, cannot be overemphasised," South Korea's Hankook Ilbo said in an editorial.

"It is of utmost importance that the three nations have the willingness to overcome differences of views." - No North Korea consensus - Despite North Korea conducting ever-more advanced weapons tests and China staging military drills around Taiwan, experts expect the summit to ignore security issues and seek common ground for easy diplomatic wins.

China is North Korea's largest trading partner and a key diplomatic ally, and it has previously resisted condemning Pyongyang for its weapons tests, instead criticising joint US-South Korea drills.

Pyongyang on Sunday slammed what it claimed were "wartime" level spy planes and boat missions by Seoul and Washington, threatening to take "immediate action" if its sovereignty was breached.

An official from Seoul's presidential office said North Korea-related issues "are difficult to resolve cleanly and quickly in a short time", so the summit will focus more on economic cooperation.

"A joint declaration is currently being discussed," he said, adding that Seoul would try to include security issues "to a certain extent".

One area where Seoul and Tokyo may find themselves at odds is a business dispute over ownership of the popular messaging app LINE, developed by South Korea's Naver and which is now under pressure from Tokyo to sell its controlling share in Japan.

According to broadcaster NHK, Kishida is likely also press Li about China's suspension of Japanese seafood imports.

China stopped accepting Japanese fish shipments last year when Tokyo began releasing waste water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul said the summit would involve "shallower cooperation" than the level of foreign policy alignment between Tokyo, Seoul and Washington.

Even so, it could "make incremental progress across many functional issues among Northeast Asian neighbours," he said.

"That China is finally reengaging in such trilateral coordination is good news for a rules-based regional order," he said.

"However, Yoon and Kishida should not allow Beijing to hold trilateral cooperation hostage for silence over Taiwan, the South China Sea, human rights, and unfair trade practices."