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Why China, Japan, and South Korea Are Holding Their First Trilateral Summit Since 2019

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China, Japan and South Korea are set to hold their first summit in more than four years, with a gathering in Seoul next week for talks that offer the neighbors a chance to manage their relations amid heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing. 

Chinese Premier Li Qiang, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will attend the summit on Sunday and Monday, an official for Yoon’s office said Thursday, according to Yonhap News. 

Bilateral discussions will take place on Sunday and the summit is planned to cover six areas of cooperation that include sustainable development, people-to-people exchanges as well as economy and trade, Yonhap cited Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo as saying. Kim added the summit would serve as a turning point for fully restoring a three-way cooperation system, Yonhap reported.

The trilateral summits have been on hold since 2019 due to the pandemic and China’s anger at Japan and South Korea moving closer to Washington in recent years. The U.S. and its two key allies in Asia have raised their security cooperation to some of the highest levels in decades, largely on concerns about North Korea’s behavior and China becoming more assertive militarily.

The meeting will take place against the backdrop of an intensifying U.S.-China rivalry for semiconductor supremacy. Washington has imposed a wall of restrictions to deny Beijing access to the latest semiconductors and sophisticated equipment needed to make the most advanced chips.

China will likely try to push Japan and South Korea not to join US-led efforts in further restricting exports of advanced chipmaking equipment, after Tokyo imposed export controls last year. Japan has been resisting U.S. pressure to further curb sales to China. The Biden administration is also trying to bring South Korea into the agreement that includes Japan and the Netherlands.

The summit highlights the difficult balancing act faced by South Korea and Japan, which both had China as their biggest trading partner last year. Both also have a security alliance with the US, which stations tens of thousands of troops in the two countries and has stepped up military training with the two in the past year. 

While Japan is still the single most important source of investment for China, the speed of investment has slowed. New investment fell for a second year in 2023, and total new money into China and Hong Kong was less than a tenth of the spending in the U.S., according to government data.

The same is true for South Korean firms. Investment into China last year was the lowest in 20 years, while Korean companies continued to pour money into the US to take advantage of subsidies for high-tech investment.

The upcoming trilateral summit will be a first major diplomatic test for Yoon as he tries to maintain the momentum for the remaining three years of his term after suffering a major defeat in parliamentary elections last month.

Yoon and Kishida may be heading to the U.S. in the next few months, possibly to hold a summit with President Joe Biden that will build on an unprecedented security meeting the three had about a year ago, according to reports from Kyodo News of Japan and other media.

Their meeting last year at the Camp David presidential retreat in rural Maryland included practical steps such as real-time data sharing to counter threats by North Korea, measures to de-risk global supply chains from exposure to China and moves to bind the trilateral relationship so tightly that it would be hard to unravel.

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