Trilateral Summit: Reviving Asian Cooperation

China, Japan, and South Korea should compete in good faith but synergize in areas of cooperation. The success of trilateral cooperation depends on balancing competition and cooperation.

3 mins read
People visit Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul, South Korea, on May 24, 2024. (Xinhua/Yao Qilin)

A trilateral summit between China, Japan, and South Korea will be held on May 26-27. As Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a regular briefing on Thursday, the three countries are close neighbors who began working together to jointly deal with the Asian financial crisis and have built a system of cooperation over the past 25 years.

However, this is only the ninth summit in 25 years, four and a half years after the eighth summit. Nevertheless, as the South Korean Office of the President said, the summit is expected to be a turning point in the restoration and normalization of the trilateral cooperation, securing the momentum of future-oriented and practical cooperation that can be felt by the people of all three countries.

Momentum is the keyword to describe the trilateral summit. It is a word that can be given the greatest meaning. The dictionary meaning of momentum in English, which is often used in politics and economics, is not only “elasticity” and “acceleration” in the progress of work, but also “trigger,” “turning point,” and growth engine. Trilateral cooperation, consisting of the three bilateral relations between China, South Korea, and Japan, is the engine for solidifying fundamentals and a complement to bilateral relations.

This meeting recognizes that since the COVID-19 pandemic, the international community has experienced at least four major crises: a human security crisis due to the pandemic, an international security crisis due to conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, a profound crisis arising from the strategic competition between the United States and China, and a global economic crisis due to rising protectionism and unilateralism in many countries. It comes at a time when cooperation and solidarity among countries are urgently needed to overcome these challenges. Although the trilateral summit is not a decisive factor in the trilateral cooperation, it is worth recognizing that the trilateral summit has functioned as a pragmatic cooperation platform to maintain peace and stability in East Asia and lead the trilateral cooperation process for more than 20 years.

As the meeting is primarily economic in nature, it will be interesting to see if the three countries can utilize the momentum of the “Trilateral Cooperation Vision for the Next Decade” agreed upon at the eighth summit rather than focusing on political issues such as international conflicts and peace on the Korean Peninsula, including the early signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), accelerating the negotiations for a trilateral free trade agreement (FTA), and increasing the level of free trade and supply chain cooperation.

Challenges and constraints abound. Bilateral relations between South Korea and China, South Korea and Japan, and China and Japan have never been good at the same time due to history, security, and other factors, so the trilateral relationship among South Korea, China, and Japan has never been smooth. Nevertheless, as the most developed region in Asia and three influential countries in the international community, we recognize the synergies that can be achieved if the three countries work together. So we can’t chase the ideal too much, but we can’t be mired in conflict and division either.

So we need to set the direction and expectations well. Politically, we need to look for incremental solutions, following the political wisdom of starting with easy tasks before moving on to more challenging ones, seeking common ground while reserving differences, and win-win cooperation.

We need to recognize realistic limitations and pursue the maximum that can be done within them. However, cooperation in potential areas among the three countries should be economically accelerated. People’s lives and interests should be prioritized. It can focus on promoting multilateralism, opposing protectionism, and maintaining supply chain stability.

Specifically, as spokesperson Wang Wenbin added, “implementing important agreements such as cooperation in economic and trade, science and technology, humanities and other fields.” Deepening cooperation in these various areas will help “promote regional economic integration in East Asia and promote regional and global peace, stability, and prosperity.”

In conclusion, the three countries should compete in good faith but synergize in areas of cooperation. The success of trilateral cooperation depends on balancing competition and cooperation.

Amid the current global trend of protectionism and unilateralism, the three countries, which have achieved economic development through free trade and globalization, should work together to overcome challenges and maximize their advantages. In the grand scheme of things, the three countries need to further refine and implement a vision and action plan that will capture the future of the people of the three countries.

Considering the international stature of the three countries and their respective national strengths, it is in their interests to continue to cooperate even in the face of competition. As a “trilateral plus X,” it will also contribute to peace and development in Asia and the world.

Jaeho Hwang

Jaeho Hwang is the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and a Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

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