L.A. Times: China Courts United States Allies Japan And South Korea In Rare Talks Signing Economic Resolutions

Proceedings of the ninth session of the trilateral summit between South Korea, Japan and China, Seoul, May 27, 2024 – Reuters
China held rare trade talks with the leaders of Japan and South Korea, the United States’ Asian allies, in a move aimed at promoting a “multipolar world without economic discrimination” During a two-day visit to Seoul, Chinese Premier Li Qiang praised the advantages of “coordinating economic relations” between the three Asian countries, at a time when Washington moved to raise tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles and undermine Beijing’s high-tech ambitions. 
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The newspaper noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping carried a “similar message” during his recent trip to Europe. 

Li Qiang said in a joint press conference on Monday: “We must remove doubts, end misunderstandings through sincere dialogue, support bilateral relations in the spirit of strategic independence, strengthen the multipolar world, and oppose confrontation and divisions between the blocs.” 

Despite all the cooperation initiatives, Japan and South Korea, like Europe, still “face many restrictions” regarding the issue of economic rapprochement with China, even if the recent US tariffs have raised “some common pain” between their East Asian neighbors.

In a joint statement, the three leaders pledged to hold regular trilateral meetings and cooperate on trade and clean energy efforts. They also stressed the need to enhance people-to-people exchanges through tourism and education.

Biggest business partner

Despite China’s repeated calls to avoid protectionism, the three countries have not come up with any concrete initiatives to achieve this goal. But they agreed to “continue communications on export controls.” 

China is ranked as the largest trading partner for Japan and South Korea, as their economic destinies are linked to each other in all fields, from semiconductors to electric vehicles.

But in recent years, Seoul and Tokyo have reached unprecedented levels in their security and political relations with Washington. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol are among the few leaders in the world who conducted a “state visit” to Washington during Joe Biden’s presidency. 

The trilateral meeting, which was held on Monday, is the first of its kind between China, Japan and South Korea since December 2019. 

China’s main concern was to discourage South Korea and Japan from imposing further restrictions on their exports to it, amid the raging trade rivalry between Washington and Beijing. 

Although the resumption of high-level talks represents “progress,” China will still face “constraints” in its attempts to persuade US allies to establish stronger trade relations with Beijing, according to analysts. 

“China hopes to use the trilateral summit to prevent two of its former regional partners from being swept away into the American orbit,” Jeremy Chan, a senior analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm, told the Wall Street Journal.

customs fees

The United States recently applied customs duties amounting to $18 billion on Chinese products such as electric car batteries and semiconductors. 

In keeping with tradition, Li Qiang, who is responsible for the day-to-day management of the Chinese economy, was tapped to replace Xi, to reinforce Beijing’s message regarding its desire to focus on trade rather than security issues. 

The leaders of China, Korea and Japan confirmed in their tripartite meeting that they will work to “accelerate the pace of negotiations” for the first trilateral free trade agreement, which has been stalled since 2019. 

The newspaper pointed out that “even in the midst of the delicate diplomatic details related to cooperation and partnership, deep differences in military and security affairs between the three countries surfaced.”  

In separate statements, Yoon and Kishida called on North Korea to “refrain from launching a military satellite,” which Pyongyang had previously informed Tokyo of, hours before the trilateral summit. 

This test represents a “violation” of United Nations Security Council resolutions. Li Qiang did not comment on North Korea’s plans, but urged “relevant parties” to exercise restraint. 

Hours after Li Qiang and Kishida left Seoul, late Monday evening, North Korea launched a satellite from its main spaceport on the country’s west coast, according to Pyongyang’s official media. 

The same media added that it appeared that the newly developed rocket’s engine had “malfunctioned” during the first stage of launching the satellite. The South Korean military detected “fragments of a shattered missile” over North Korean waters.

China and Taiwan

In addition, during a bilateral meeting with Li Qiang on Sunday, Kishida conveyed that Japan is closely monitoring “relevant developments,” including “military activities,” across the Taiwan Strait, which he described as “extremely important” to the international community. 

Days before that, China began large-scale combat exercises around Taiwan. Li Qiang said that Taiwan is “at the core of China’s concerns and interests,” the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, reported.

Tongfei Kim, a research professor of Asian geopolitics at the Brussels School of Government, told the Wall Street Journal that Japan and South Korea “cannot clearly align” with China against US tariffs because that “could harm their political relations with Washington,” before… He points out that the three countries “indirectly show that the unilateral policies pursued by Washington can push its allies toward rapprochement with Beijing.” 

Kim added, “The allies’ dependence on American military protection would limit their independence in the economic field, but Washington cannot expect the allies to blindly comply with its demands.”  

China has repeatedly warned of NATO’s expansion in the Indo-Pacific region, as the alliance plans to establish a liaison office in Tokyo, and has invited Japan and South Korea, two non-NATO partners, to attend summits. On Sunday, Lee Chiang Seoul warned against politicizing trade and economic issues. 

The trilateral free trade agreement is “one potential area of ​​cooperation,” according to the Wall Street Journal, which noted that the talks “began in 2012, but have stalled in recent years.”

Wendy Cutler, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, said that previous efforts to reach an agreement “faltered,” and that making agreements that go beyond simple commitments “is more complex in the current environment.” 

She added, “The United States will count on its two allies not to undermine their strong economic security agenda with Washington by adopting China’s claims in the field of technology in particular.” 

But even as Washington works to build stronger political ties with Tokyo and Seoul, business ventures in both South Korea and Japan share common ground with China in that they all stand to lose out due to high US tariffs and strict investment restrictions. 

In a meeting Sunday evening with Samsung Chairman Lee Jae-yong, the Chinese premier encouraged South Korean companies, including the tech giant, to “expand the scope of their investments” in China.

Samsung between Beijing and Washington

The Korean technology giant is facing difficulties in dealing with US export controls to prevent Beijing from accessing advanced chips. 

Japan is keen to maintain traditional supply chains with China, though it shares US concerns about supplying advanced chips to Beijing, and will look to secure Chinese components “in a way that does not provoke Washington,” said Yorizumi Watanabe, a former Japanese diplomat and president of Fuji Women’s University. 

For her part, Patricia Kim, a Chinese foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said the three parties “appear satisfied” to use their meeting to signal the resumption of regular contacts by committing to cooperate on common challenges.

Kim added, “No one is under any illusions that the alignment lines in Northeast Asia will be redrawn during this summit, or anytime soon.”

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