China hails ‘new beginning’ at summit with Japan and South Korea

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China’s Premier Li Qiang hailed a “new beginning” in its relationship with South Korea and Japan as the three countries pledged to revive talks on a free trade agreement.

“We will keep discussions for speeding up negotiations for a trilateral free trade agreement,” South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Li said in a joint statement after their summit in Seoul on Monday.

The summit, arranged at short notice and the first of its kind since 2019, came amid disquiet in Beijing over Seoul and Tokyo’s participation in sweeping US export controls designed to restrict Chinese access to cutting-edge chip technologies, as well as their burgeoning military co-operation with the US.

Li, the former Shanghai party chief who became Chinese premier last year, said on Monday that the meeting marked “both a restart and a new beginning” in relations between Beijing and Washington’s east Asian allies.

The three countries agreed to strengthen supply chain co-operation and communicate more closely on export control measures, Li said, stressing that he opposed protectionism and decoupling of supply chains.

“In order to create a more favourable environment, China, Japan and South Korea need to properly address sensitive issues and differences in opinion,” Li said in a joint press conference following the summit.

He also urged Seoul and Tokyo to “take care of each other’s core interests” in a thinly veiled warning against joining Washington’s increasingly assertive policies on China. The three leaders agreed to meet on an annual basis.

The summit’s official agenda did not touch on regional points of conflict such as North Korea or Taiwan and instead focused on academic and tourism exchanges, as well as co-operation on climate change and future pandemic planning.

On Sunday, Li met Samsung chair Lee Jae-yong to encourage the South Korean tech giant, which is the world’s largest producer of cutting-edge memory chips, to invest more in China.

“Foreign-funded enterprises are an indispensable force for China’s development and China’s mega-market will always be open to foreign-funded companies,” Li was quoted as saying by Chinese state news agency Xinhua.

But Yeo Han-koo, a former South Korean trade minister now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said it was “unlikely that Korean businesses are going to want to make cutting-edge technology investments in China, given the geopolitical environment and the fact that Chinese and Korean technology companies are now direct competitors in many areas”.

Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said China re-engaging in trilateral co-ordination was “good news” for a rules-based regional order.

But he warned that Beijing’s intention might be to weaken South Korea’s economic security co-operation with Japan and the US, particularly regarding semiconductor supply chains.

Jaewoo Choo, head of the China centre at the Korea Research Institute for National Security think-tank in Seoul, said the key for future success would be Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s attendance.

“Without the bargaining power of China’s head of state, these summits are unlikely to achieve any of their goals, whether that is a future free trade agreement or anything else,” said Choo.

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