After conducting trilateral meeting at senior official level in September, South Korea, Japan, and China are gearing up for ministerial level meeting in Busan late next month— all this in an attempt to thaw their relations which have soured in recent months on account of the US’s deepening of security ties with Tokyo and Seoul and Beijing’s aggressive moves against Taiwan and across South and East China Seas.
As per Yonhap News Agency, the South Korean government has proposed holding ministerial-level talks with Japan and China in Busan on November 26 and three sides are working on it. Kyodo News said Japan is “positive” about the plan.
China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning on October 20 said, “China, Japan and the ROK are close neighbours. Trilateral cooperation serves the common interests of all three countries. According to my knowledge, the three sides are in contact on the dates of the China-Japan-ROK foreign ministers’ meeting.”
The planned ministerial level meeting between three East Asian countries, sharing blow hot and cold relations, analysts say, could open the way for the first trilateral summit among their leaders in four years. The last China-Japan-South Korea summit was held in the southeastern Chinese city of Chengdu in December 2019.
In September, senior officials of South Korea, China and Japan agreed to resume their trilateral summit at the earliest convenient time and swiftly convene a ministerial meeting for preparations, Yonhap News Agency said.
In the revival of the trilateral talks, analysts see Seoul’s effort to assuage Beijing’s concern on deepening of security ties between the US, Japan, and South Korea. On August 19, the US held its first trilateral summit with its close Asian allies in Camp David.
In categorical messaging to China, the US, Japan, and South Korea in their trilateral summit agreed to establish a three-way hotline for crisis communications, enhance ballistic missile cooperation and expand joint military drills.
“We announce our governments’ commitment to consult with each other in an expeditious manner to coordinate our responses to regional challenges, provocations, and threats that affect our collective interests and security,” the joint statement issued by the three countries said.
The three countries at the summit agreed to annually hold trilateral meetings at the leadership level, and also at foreign, defence, finance minister-level and national security advisor-level. They also agreed to launch an annual Trilateral Indo-Pacific Dialogue to coordinate implementation of their Indo-Pacific approaches.
Riled by this move, China said, “The Asia-Pacific is an anchor for peace and development and a promising land for cooperation and growth, and should never be turned into a wrestling ground for geopolitical competition again. Attempts to cobble together various
exclusionary groups and bring bloc confrontation and military blocs into the Asia-Pacific are not going to get support and will only be met with vigilance and opposition from regional countries.”
Growing bonhomie between Japan and South Korea has also upset China. For the first time after a gap of 12 years, the two countries held their formal summit in Tokyo on March 16, settling the vexatious wartime labour issue while promising to turn a new leaf in their relationship on several fronts, including diplomacy, security, and economic cooperation. The last formal summit between Tokyo and Seoul was held in December 2011 when the then South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited Japan.
China is also not happy with South Korea’s deployment of the US made THAAD anti- missile system in Seoul since 2016. THAAD is designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles. It carries no warhead and destroys missiles through impact, DW, German public broadcaster said.
China says the weapon system “will severely harm strategic interests of countries in the region, including China, and regional strategic balance.” China has repeatedly asked South Korea to withdraw THAAD’s deployment, but to no avail. The weapon is considered to be one of the best missile defence systems in the world and South Korea plans to deploy more THAAD units, said DW.
On August 9 when South Korean foreign minister Park Jin visited the Chinese city of Qingdao for his first meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, the THAAD issue came up for discussion. The South Korean foreign minister said he made it clear that deployment of the system was not open to negotiations as it was a “matter of our security and sovereignty against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats,” DW quoted Park Jin as saying.
Despite this clear no to China, Seoul was surprised to see that the Chinese foreign ministry the following day declared that South Korea had agreed to limit the deployment of THAAD units and adhere to “Three No’s” that former South Korean President Moon Jae-in had previously committed with China. These “Three Nos” included—not deploy more THAAD units, not from a missile defence network with the US and not formally join a trilateral military alliance with Japan and the US.
The South Korean Presidential Blue House immediately refuted China’s claims, declaring no such agreements were reached between Seoul and Beijing. On THAAD, the Presidential Blue House said, “Our government clearly states that THAAD is a self- defensive tool aimed at protecting our people’s lives and safety from North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and is a matter of security, sovereignty that can never be subject to negotiation.” Defence experts say China’s concern related to THAAD is also to do with its sophisticated radar that would be able to detect Chinese missile launches.
In this background, how South Korea-Japan-China trilateral mechanism will resolve deep bilateral feuds and concerns among all three countries is in the realm of doubts. Because, the more China wants Seoul and Tokyo to decouple from the security arrangement with the US, the more the three countries are engaged in improving their coordinated work on the defence front.
On October 22, South Korea, the US, and Japan carried out their first joint aerial drills. According to The Japan Times, the trilateral exercise took place around the Korean Peninsula, where South Korea and Japan’s air defence identification zones overlap. The exercise involved a US B-52 bomber which flies at subsonic speeds and can travel more than 8,800 miles without refuelling, at an altitude of 50,000 feet, The Japan Times said.