Featured Contribution: Korea’s Role as a Facilitator of Trilateral Cooperation in Northeast Asia

The Ninth Trilateral Summit Meeting among the Republic of Korea, Japan, and the People's Republic of China will be convened on May 26 and 27 in Seoul. Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, and Chinese Premier Li Qiang will gather to discuss critical issues pertaining to regional cooperation. 

The inception of the trilateral summit dates back to 2008 after the independent meetings of the leaders of the three countries on the sidelines of the ASEAN Plus Three gatherings. The establishment of ASEAN Plus Three itself stemmed from the shared imperative to foster cooperation among the key regional powers in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. Despite some vicissitudes, the three countries have been working toward the institutionalization of trilateral cooperation, as exemplified by the establishment of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS) in Seoul in 2011, upon the shared understanding of the importance of trilateral cooperation.

It is particularly meaningful that the trilateral summit in May 2024 will be convened after a four-year and five-month hiatus. Over the past years, the COVID situation precluded the possibility of holding a face-to-face summit meeting among the three countries. However, the pandemic was not the sole impediment. Korea, Japan, and China faced issues related to historical controversies and territorial disputes over the past few years, which strained their relations. 

Despite these challenges, there remains a high demand for retrieving the trilateral summit process. When combined, the three countries comprise almost 20 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of global GDP. Given their significant global presence, non-cooperation is atypical. All three countries seek to avert the potential emergence of a new Cold War scenario in Northeast Asia, which may add diplomatic and security burdens to all of them. Despite the three countries’ divergent alignments and stances across various issues, they are all aware that escalating tensions and controversies are detrimental to their interests. Therefore, managing the level of conflict to a tolerable level is not only necessary but also obligatory. All three countries are keenly aware that protecting economic security is critical to their national interests, but they do not want to decouple from one another. Korea, Japan, and China remain economically interdependent in numerous ways. As closest neighbors, people-to-people exchanges are not only inevitable but also represent the very natural trend of our times. Most of all, despite some disagreements over national identity, historical perceptions, and security interests, functional cooperation among the three countries is possible as well as unavoidable. Cooperation in areas of mutual agreement forms the foundation of trilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia. 

Nevertheless, bringing the trilateral summit back to its operational trajectory was by no means an easy endeavor. Given the dormancy since the last summit meeting in 2019, reinitiating the process required efforts from all three countries involved. In particular, Korea, as the convener and host of the upcoming trilateral summit, mobilized significant resources and strenuous efforts to facilitate the summit’s resumption. Under Korea's initiative, last year's Trilateral Senior Officials' Meeting in September and Trilateral Foreign Ministers' Meeting in November served as stepping stones for the revitalization of trilateral cooperation. Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul’s bilateral meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa in February, and his meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi a couple of weeks ago, as well as his phone conversations with both Ministers earlier in the year, also strengthened momentum towards the meeting.

The leaders of all three countries are acutely aware of the utility of reviving the trilateral summit. As multilateral frameworks are not seamless and often fall short in tackling critical global affairs, a growing number of governments and entities are turning to minilateral frameworks to adeptly coordinate and facilitate regional cooperation. The trilateral summit is undoubtedly a well-engineered minilateral mechanism that will help all regional players iron out differences and fine-tune efforts to address Northeast Asian issues. Another possible strategic benefit also deserves attention. The three leaders could upgrade levels of bilateral communication and collaboration within the general framework of trilateral dialogue. Rather than sharpening fault lines between the U.S. and China, the trilateral summit may serve as a platform for mitigating tensions between these competing global giants at odds. Additionally, a meeting among the three leaders would send a signal to North Korea that Korea, Japan, and China are willing to and can orchestrate efforts together to promote peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula in a broader regional context. 

This year’s trilateral summit will undoubtedly be a pivotal step towards restoring and further deepening mutual trust among the three countries. It is poised to demonstrate that many, though not all, issues can be resolved by dialogue and diplomacy. Enhancing the level of applicable and functional cooperation among the three countries will likely help yield tangible benefits not only for their citizens but also for the broader international community. The cooperative agendas on the table may include environmental protection, public health and sanitation, disaster relief, and the prevention of transboundary crimes. These initiatives will enhance the health and safety of the people in the three countries. In addition, the agenda may embrace supply chain issues, finance, and intellectual property challenges which would be crucial to improving the quality of daily lives. Most importantly, this summit will help mitigate tensions among Korea, Japan, and China and serve as a springboard for strengthening their ties both trilaterally and bilaterally. 

There is a Korean proverb that states “A Single Spoon Does Not Make Your Stomach Full.” Likewise, the forthcoming trilateral summit will not solve every problem and curb potential conflicts in the region in a single stroke. However, the trilateral summit will definitely be a gateway opportunity as the dialogue platform that brings together the highest echelon of leadership in Northeast Asia for steering forward-looking efforts at trust building, conflict management, and crisis prevention in the region and beyond.


Dr. Park Cheol Hee is Chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA).