China casts a shadow over opening of Biden’s Japan-S.Korea trilateral summit

U.S., Japanese and South Korean diplomats are locked in last-minute negotiations over whether the documents for the three countries’ trilateral summit meeting opening on Friday should explicitly mention China as a challenge to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

“One of the issues that they’re negotiating … is whether or not we’ll insert the word ‘China’” in the documents’ final text, Hikariko Ono, Director-General for Press and Public Diplomacy at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters in a late Thursday briefing. “We’re still discussing how and how much we describe China” in the trilateral documents, she added.

White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell predicted on Wednesday that the summit — which brings together President Joe Biden, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at Camp David — will create the “defining trilateral relationship for the 21st century.”

But the apparent disagreement among the three countries in the final hours prior to the summit’s opening over whether the trilateral should give China equal billing with North Korea as a named threat to regional peace and stability underscores concerns about Beijing’s ability to inflict economic pain against countries with which it has close economic ties.

China has reacted to the summit with hostility, accusing the U.S. of “assembling exclusionary groupings and practices that intensify antagonism and undermine the strategic security of other countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters Tuesday when asked about the trilateral

South Korea is particularly sensitive to the risk of reprisals from Beijing after being targeted with punishing economic sanctions after Seoul deployed U.S. THAAD anti-missile systems in 2017 to counter a rising threat from North Korea.

Ono didn’t elaborate on which country’s diplomats were hesitating to name China in the summit documents, but indicated Japan wasn’t opposed to ensuring Beijing gets a mention in the final texts on Friday. “We really don’t mind seeing the reference to China when we describe things going on in the South China Sea, for example, because it’s a fact that China is unilaterally attempting to change the status quo in the South China Sea,” Ono said.