South Korea hosts Japan, China as US allies try to reassure Beijing

SEOUL, Sept 26 (Reuters) – South Korea hosted senior diplomats from China and Japan for a rare trilateral meeting on Tuesday seen as aimed at assuaging Beijing’s concerns over the two U.S. allies’ tightening cooperation between themselves and Washington.

The meeting aims in part to set the stage for the resumption of three-way summits among the countries’ leaders, which were last held in 2019. Those talks were suspended amid legal, diplomatic and trade disputes between Seoul and Tokyo over issues dating to Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of Korea.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have since taken steps to mend ties and in August held a historic trilateral summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, where the three vowed to boost cooperation, including on defence and economic security.

A senior South Korean government official said China has been proactive in seeking trilateral cooperation and arranging meetings since relations soured between Seoul and Beijing in 2017 over the deployment of a U.S. THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea.

“I’m sure there should be some discomfort on their side regarding our increasingly close trilateral security partnerships with the United States and Japan,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “There seems to be a view there that they need to properly manage bilateral ties with us, as they saw how their THAAD responses backfired and fuelled anti-China sentiment to serious levels.”

Beijing will most likely look to leverage trilateral trade ties to counterbalance the U.S. friend-shoring strategy, promote people-to-people exchanges, and enhance communication and dialogue with Seoul and Tokyo on security and defence matters, said Tong Zhao, senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Japan and South Korea have an interest in avoiding conflicts and maintaining a stable security relationship with China, and Beijing’s assistance in slowing down, if not halting, North Korea’s extensive nuclear development program, he added.

“These shared interests open up new avenues for strategic communication, confidence-building, and measures to prevent crises,” Zhao said.

The trilateral summits have traditionally involved China’s premier, but South Korea is also pushing for a separate visit by President Xi Jinping.

South Korea is this year’s host for three-way meetings and proposed a trilateral summit in December during the talks on Tuesday, Japanese broadcaster TBS reported.

The latest meeting involved South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Chung Byung-won, Japanese Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Takehiro Funakoshi, and Nong Rong, China’s assistant minister of foreign affairs.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a briefing on Monday that China, Japan and South Korea are close neighbours and important cooperative partners, and strengthening trilateral cooperation serves their common interests.

Reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Additional reporting by Liz Lee in Beijing; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Gerry Doyle

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