US expects South Korea and Japan to manage ties with China at summit amid growing differences

WASHINGTON — Ahead of a trilateral summit involving South Korea, Japan, and China this weekend in Seoul, Washington said it expects the event to be an opportunity for its two allies to manage their relations with Beijing.

“The United States respects the ability of nations to make sovereign decisions in the best interests of their people,” said a spokesperson for the State Department.

“Just as the United States takes steps to responsibly manage our relationship with the PRC, so do our partners and allies,” the spokesperson continued in an email to VOA’s Korean Service on May 15. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is China’s official name.

The summit would come amid a heightened tension between Washington and Beijing over trade  and after China agreed with Russia to establish a “new era” partnership to create “a multipolar world order” during their summit last week.

The three East Asian countries are expected to hold their summit from May 26 to 27, but the official dates have not been announced. Chinese Premier Li Qiang is expected to attend in place of Chinese President Xi Jinping to meet with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

The meeting would be their first trilateral summit since December 2019.

Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA on May 14 that Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul should be main drivers responsible for regional stability and security.

Pointing out what Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said after a trilateral foreign ministers meeting in November, Pengyu said the three countries need to “address differences and disputes in peaceful ways” and “act as front runner of East Asia cooperation.”

Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing are planning to discuss trade and investment, peace and security, and science and technology, among other items and include in a joint statement their cooperation on economic issues and infectious diseases, according to the Japan Times, citing Japanese government sources Sunday.

Former U.S. officials said while it will be important for the three countries to meet and talk at the summit, differences that Seoul and Tokyo have with Beijing on North Korea are unlikely to be resolved.

“With China determined to establish a new China-centric regional order and because of Beijing’s open-ended support for the DPRK, we should not expect progress on this issue,” said Evans Revere, a State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea.

North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

“Nevertheless, it is important for South Korea and Japan to use this summit to convey their strong concerns,” Revere continued.

At a bilateral summit last week, Beijing and Moscow criticized Washington and its allies for their “intimidation in the military sphere” against North Korea.

 

Zhao Leji, who ranks third in the Chinese Communist Party, visited Pyongyang in April and agreed with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to boost cooperation on mutual concerns. It was the highest-level talks the two countries had held in years.

The upcoming summit comes after trilateral cooperation was agreed among Washington, Seoul and Tokyo at their Camp David summit in August 2023 to strengthen their deterrence against North Korean threats and to defend a free and open Indo-Pacific against Chinese aggressions.

Joseph DeTrani, who served as the U.S. special envoy for six-party denuclearization talks with North Korea from 2003 to 2006, said, “China will ask that the ROK and Japan not to align with the U.S. against China, an issue that wasn’t on the table in 2019.”

South Korea’s official name is the Republic of Korea (ROK).

DeTrani said Seoul and Tokyo will “try to get China to convince North Korea to cease providing arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine” and “to use its leverage” with Pyongyang “to halt ballistic missile launches.”

Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of Kim Jong Un, denied Pyongyang’s arms dealings with Moscow, according to state-run KCNA on Friday. The same day, North Korea launched a tactical ballistic missile, said KCNA. 

Gary Samore, who served as the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration, said the summit will become “an opportunity for communication” among Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing to avoid conflict, but the differences that grew among them since 2019 will not be resolved as South Korea and Japan “leaned in the direction of cooperating with the U.S.”

Eunjung Cho contributed to this report.