East Asia
“An Attempt to Ease Tensions”

Interview with Frederic Spohr, head of the Korea office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Seoul
Yoon Suk Yeol

For the first time since 2019, a summit meeting between China, Japan and South Korea is scheduled for end of May.

© picture alliance / YONHAPNEWS AGENCY | Yonhap

For the first time since 2019, a summit meeting between China, Japan and South Korea is scheduled for end of May. China's aggressive approach and Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine have increased tensions in East Asia. But the states are closely intertwined economically. The summit in South Korea's capital is intended to counteract increasing bloc formation. spoke to Frederic Spohr, head of the Korea office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Seoul, about the background of the next meeting.

A summit meeting between Japan, China and South Korea is scheduled to take place at the end of May. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol are going to meet in Seoul. Why is the summit important?

All three states have enormous global economic importance. They account for well over half of Asia's economic output. They are also the three economically strongest states in the “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership” – the largest free trade zone in the world. However, political tensions have increased in recent years. At the same time, all parties know that cooperation is essential. They claim to be fundamentally interested in good relationships. The summit is an attempt to ease tensions.

What are those tensions?

South Korea and Japan are watching China's increasingly aggressive behavior in the East China and South China Sea with concern. Chinese coast guard ships enter the waters around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands on a weekly basis. The threatening gestures against the Philippines and Taiwan are also increasingly perceived as a sign of danger in South Korea and Japan. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has criticized China for its aggressive policy towards Taiwan, which would have been unthinkable years ago. In April, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited the United States with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. They consulted with US President Joe Biden. The main topic was military cooperation in order to be able to stand up to China. Beijing does not like to see that.

The economic relationships are close, and the states are also geographically close to each other. Why has there not been a summit in in the past five years?

Usually, the summits between the three countries should take place every year. The states even created an institution for this purpose: the “Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat”. The most recent summit took place in December 2019 – shortly before the outbreak of the corona pandemic. The fact that there have been no more summits since then was partly due to the pandemic and partly due to the emerging differences. Even the upcoming summit, a few days before the planned date on May 26th and 27th, has not yet been officially confirmed and could theoretically be postponed or canceled again. This shows how difficult coordination between the three states is.

What role does the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine play?

The combination of China's desire for power and Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine has increased the concerns of security of Japan and South Korea. The global order is eroding, wars of aggression to expand power are suddenly a reality again. Japan and South Korea are therefore seeking US protection. A tripartite summit at Camp David between the USA, South Korea and Japan in August last year clearly demonstrated this. The two Asian states are also exploring joining the trilateral military alliance AUKUS, which exists between the USA, Great Britain and Australia. On the other hand, since the war in Ukraine there has been closer cooperation between Russia, China and North Korea. North Korea provides Russia with weapons and will likely receive technology and capital in return. The fact that China abstained from a decision in the UN Security Council to continue monitoring sanctions on North Korea can be interpreted as approval of this cooperation. The war in Ukraine strengthens this bloc formation.

The relationship between Japan and South Korea was tense for decades. Now it has improved significantly. Why is that?

Due to Japan's former colonial rule in South Korea, the relationship between the two countries is historically heavily strained. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has campaigned intensively for rapprochement. This could be considered risky since some South Koreans still have reservations about Japan. But today the two liberal democracies have many common interests. This improving relationship should also bolster South Korea and Japan's strategic position against their powerful neighbor China.

How does China react?

The People's Republic feels increasingly isolated in Asia. Chinese state media criticized the meeting of the US, South Korea and Japan at Camp David as an attempt to form a “mini-NATO”. China will want to use the summit to counter the alliance that is forming between the USA, South Korea and Japan. Not just in terms of security policy, but also economically.

What is the economic relationship between China and South Korea like?

China is South Korea's most important trading partner. However, similar to Germany, there are efforts to reduce dependence on China. In recent years, South Korean companies have invested more in the United States than in China. This was not entirely voluntary, but rather a result of American trade restrictions. They made it more difficult for South Korean companies to equip their production facilities in China with modern machines. According to media reports, the USA is also calling on South Korea to join further US export restrictions on modern chips. But South Korea is hesitant because there are fears of countermeasures from the Chinese. China may use the summit to persuade South Korea not to join American restrictions. This is not an easy situation for South Korea.

What decisions can be expected from the summit?

Fundamental decisions are unlikely. It can be assumed that there will be a fairly general final statement. The fact that the summit is taking place at all is remarkable given the tensions between the states. In April, there was another scandal: China reacted angrily when South Korea made Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang join the “Summit for Democracy” online.

*Frederic Spohr is the head of the Korea office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Seoul.