Chinese President Xi Jinping is looking to use a planned meeting with fellow leaders from Japan and South Korea to reassert his nation’s position in the region after President Joe Biden bolstered security ties with the two U.S. allies in a historic summit last month.
Beijing viewed that meeting in Camp David as a means of raising an attempt by the U.S. to increase the pressure against on China at a time of intensifying rivalry with the United States. between the two superpowers. With frictions high, Xi’s first summit with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts seeks to turn down the heat and prevent the two nearby Asian powers from aligning too closely with Washington in the growing geopolitical competition consuming the Asia-Pacific.
“I think the objective of the Chinese is to ease this pressure that they feel they’re under because of the efforts of the American government and its allies and partners and an ever-broadening alignment of countries, similar to what the Americans have carried out with the Russians in Ukraine,” Robert Sutter, a professor at George Washington University who previously served in a number of U.S. government position, including at the National Intelligence Council and the State Department, told Newsweek.
This scope of this U.S. outreach goes beyond Japan and South Korea, to include Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam. The effort is part of what Sutter referred to as Biden’s “effective” diplomacy geared toward “building up these positions of strength in ways that aren’t directly provocative to China, but very much undermine what China wants to accomplish.”
In turn, Sutter said that Beijing was trying “weaken” these bonds and “reduce the negatives” associated with China’s own relationships in the region through savvy diplomatic maneuvering.
“China wants to make sure that the trilateral that came out of Camp David is weakened and will not become what Chinese strategists and Chinese media see as a very powerful position of strength for the United States, its allies and partners in dealing with China,” Sutter said.
The details, including the date and location, of the planned trilateral summit have yet to be established. Confirmation of the plans to hold the meeting, which would mark the first of its kind since December 2019, came Tuesday after senior officials from all three countries met in Seoul following weeks of speculation that such a gathering was in the works.
Speaking at a press briefing that same day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Nong Rong, Japanese Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Takehiro Funakoshi and South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Chung Byung-won “held in-depth discussions on working for the steady resumption of trilateral cooperation” in the South Korean capital.
“They agreed that trilateral cooperation serves the common interests of the three parties,” Wang said, “and it’s necessary to work together to step up practical cooperation in such fields as culture and people-to-people exchanges, economy and trade, scientific and technological innovation, sustainable development and public health to make new progress in trilateral cooperation and make new contribution to regional peace, stability and prosperity.”
“The three parties agreed to hold a foreign ministers’ meeting in the coming months and maintain communication on holding a leaders’ meeting at the earliest opportunity convenient to all three countries,” Wang added.
Spokespersons for the foreign ministries of Japan and South Korea also stated that preparations were being made to hold a trilateral leaders’ summit with China.
The history of relations between the three nations are complex. During World War II, the Japanese Empire invaded both China and Korea, which was later divided by the Soviet Union and the U.S. into what would become North and South Korea, respectively, upon the Allied victory in 1945. Four years later, Communists prevailed in the Chinese Civil War and would join Soviet-backed North Korea in battling South Korea and a U.S.-led United Nations coalition from 1950-1953, a war that ended with an armistice and no official peace treaty.
While Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol have more recently made an effort to overcome the difficult legacy between their two nations, tensions with China remain tangible, especially as the People’s Republic continues to pursue its own massive military modernization. Japan and South Korea have also embarked their own defense buildups, along with greater security cooperation with the U.S., raising concerns for China.
At the same time, Beijing is both Tokyo and Seoul’s top trade partner, and it has sought to expand its relationships with both countries.
Zhan Debin, director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies at the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics, told Newsweek that Beijing’s primary goal in the trilateral format has always been “to promote cooperation between China, Japan and South Korea in economic, cultural and other fields, thereby promoting the integration of Northeast Asia and leading and driving the entire East Asia region’s cooperation.”
He noted that challenges in China’s bilateral relationships with both countries had for years left such a meeting untenable, but now there was an opportunity to change this.
“China hopes that through dialogue, South Korea and Japan will realize that it is not in the interests of South Korea and Japan to completely follow the United States or even participate in containing China, whether in terms of security or economy,” Zhan said.
This path has already had consequences in terms of a decline in both countries’ trade volume in the crucial Chinese market, as well as in the gradual reemergence of the same two rival blocs that first emerged in the earliest days of the Cold War.
As Biden forged a new security pact last month with Kishida and Yoon, experts from both Japan and South Korea told Newsweek the move was likely to strengthen ties between China, Russia and North Korea, whose supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, went on to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in a rare trip to Moscow earlier this month.
Zhan, for his part, argued that all these developments were related, and he said it was up to the U.S. and its two allies to decide what forms of cooperation or confrontation would come to define the region.
“Whether there will be a risk of confrontation between the two major camps in the region depends first on what the United States, Japan and South Korea think and do,” Zhan said, “because the United States, Japan and South Korea are the first to engage in Cold War-style cooperation.”
“Of course, China firmly opposes the cooperation between the United States, Japan and South Korea against China, and also opposes the so-called new cold war,” he added. “China is even less willing to see the formation of two camps in Northeast Asia, so China will still make unremitting efforts to persuade South Korea and Japan to return to the track of regional cooperation, but not to make enemies.”