Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Beijing Monday for separate bilateral summits.
Abe and Moon both fly to Chengdu, Sichuan Province, tomorrow, where they will attend the annual trilateral summit held between the three major states of Northeast Asia; last year’s edition took place in Japan. The Christmas Eve trilateral in Chengdu will be presided over by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
The two days will witness a diplomatic dance among the leaders of the three nations, the steps complicated by the dynamics that unite and divide them.
China has been hammered in its trade war with the United States, and collateral fallout has hit Japan and Korea – both of which number China as top trade partner and the US as number two.
Seoul and Tokyo both maintain alliances with Washington. Yet Seoul and Tokyo, engaged in a complicated historical-diplomatic-trade spat with each other, are barely on speaking terms. Tuesday’s meeting will tell if anything comes of hopes for a re-set in the Abe-Moon relationship.
On the strategic front, Abe seeks improved ties with Beijing to hedge against the unpredictability of Trump, who some Japanese fear could pull US troops out. On the economic front, Xi needs continued strong trade ties with Japan, a G3 economy, to hedge against the economic damage he is suffering at Trump’s hands.
Also in the strategic space, the two were likely to discuss their approaches toward North Korea.
Xi is expected to press Abe to clarify his stance on the Beijing-led, 16-member RCEP, or Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an Asia-wide trade agreement. Japan has been part of negotiations, but a Japanese official said recently that Tokyo will not join if fellow democracy India, which has issues with some RCEP provisions, stays out.
Moon met Xi in Beijing on Monday morning.
Their discussions covered the situation in North Korea, which is on the brink of ending two years of denuclearization negotiations with the United States under a self-set year-end deadline. China is North Korea’s treaty ally and its major trade partner.
Noting the stalled Pyongyang-Washington dialog, Moon reached out to Xi. “This situation in no way benefits our two countries – or North Korea,” Moon said, according to a readout released to foreigner reporters by the South Korean presidential office. “I hope that we can work together even more closely.”
Moon suggested that South Korea and China could co-operate in third countries where China’s well-funded Belt and Road Initiative is underway. Moreover, China is South Korea’s leading trade partner and Moon stated that bilateral trade this year has topped $200 billion, and eight million visitors have been shared.
However, Moon also said: “We may feel a momentary sense of regret toward each other.” That is most likely diplomatic-speak for the economic retaliation Beijing has aimed at Seoul since the latter approved the deployment of THAAD, a US anti-missile system, on its soil. Beijing insists that the system can snoop on its own defenses, and has demanded its removal.
The economic cost to Seoul has mounted to the billions of dollars, with K-pop concerts and Korean games still being banned in China, and major corporations feeling the heat.