South Korean, Chinese and Japanese leaders discuss thorny topics and ways to boost cooperation

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The Japanese and South Korean leaders raised sensitive topics like Taiwan, North Korea and the South China Sea as well as ways to boost cooperation when they individually met China's premier Sunday on the eve of a fuller trilateral meeting.

It was unclear how serious discussions the three leaders had on those thorny issues, which are not among the official agenda items for Monday's three-way gathering in Seoul, the first of its kind in more than four years.

No major announcement is expected from the meeting, but observers say that just resuming the highest-level talks among the three Northeast Asian neighbors is a good sign and suggests they are intent on improving relations. Their trilateral meeting was supposed to happen annually but it had stalled since the last one in December 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and complex ties among the three countries.

After meeting Chinese Premier Li Qiang, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters that he expressed serious concerns about the situations in the South China Sea, Hong Kong and China's northwestern Xinjiang region. He said Japan is closely monitoring developments on self-governed Taiwan.

He referred to China's military assertiveness in the South China Sea, clampdowns of pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and human rights abuses against minorities in Xinjiang. Last week, China also launched a large military exercise around Taiwan to show its anger over the inauguration of the island's new president who refuses to accept its insistence that Taiwan is part of China.

During a separate meeting with Li, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, on his part, asked China, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, to contribute to promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula, while speaking about North Korea’s nuclear program and its deepening military ties with Russia, according to Yoon's office.

Yoon’s office said Yoon and Kishida in their separate meeting expressed worries about North Korea’s nuclear program and agreed to strengthen their cooperation with the United States.

South Korea, Japan and the U.S. have long urged China — North Korea’s major ally and economic pipeline — to use its leverage to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions. But China is suspected of avoiding fully enforcing U.N. sanctions on North Korea and sending clandestine aid shipments to help its impoverished neighbor stay afloat.

The three leaders also discussed how to bolster economic and other cooperation.

Yoon and Li agreed to launch a new South Korean-Chinese dialogue channel involving senior diplomats and defense officials in mid-June. They also agreed to restart negotiations to expand the free trade agreement and reactivate dormant bodies on personnel exchanges, investments and other issues, according to Yoon’s office.

Chinese state media reported Li told Yoon that the two countries should safeguard the stability of their deeply intertwined industrial and supply chains and resist turning economic and trade issues into political and security-related issues.

Kishida said he and Li reaffirmed Japan and China will seek progress on various areas to promote mutually beneficial relations. Kishida and Yoon also said they agreed to further strengthen ties, which have warmed significantly since last year following an earlier setback over issues related to Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean officials said that a joint statement after Monday’s trilateral meeting will cover the leaders’ discussion on cooperation in areas like people-to-people exchanges, climate change, trade, health issues, technology and disaster responses.

The three Asian nations are important trading partners and their cooperation is key to promoting regional peace and prosperity. They together make up about 25% of global gross domestic product. But the three countries have been repeatedly embroiled in bitter disputes over a range of historical and diplomatic issues originating from Japan’s wartime atrocities. China’s rise and a U.S. push reinforce its Asian alliances have also significantly impacted their three-way ties in recent years.

Experts say South Korea, China and Japan now share a need to improve ties. South Korea and Japan want better ties with China because it is their biggest trading partner. China, for its part, likely believes a further strengthening of the South Korea-Japan-U.S. cooperation would hurt its national interests.

China, meanwhile, has always sent its premier, the country’s No. 2 official, to the trilateral leaders’ meeting since its first session in 2008. Observers say China earlier argued that under then-collective leadership, its premier was chiefly in charge of economic affairs and best suited to attend the meeting, which largely focuses on economic issues.

But they say China may face more demands for President Xi Jinping to attend because he has concentrated power in his hands and defied the norms of collective leadership.


Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Simina Mistreanu in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.

Hyung-jin Kim, The Associated Press