Rare Japan-South Korea Summit Could Help US’s Push on China

(Bloomberg) — The second meeting in two months between leaders of Japan and South Korea after years without a formal summit marks another win for the Biden administration, which has sought to unite the allies to cooperate against North Korea and undercut China’s growing power.

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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrived in Seoul on Sunday for talks with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. The two are seeking to bolster business and military cooperation with the US even while remaining mindful of the importance of keeping ties steady with their biggest trading partner, China.

It’s a delicate balance as Washington and Beijing squabble over everything from the supply of chips and cutting-edge technology, to an alleged Chinese spy balloon being shot down over American skies and China’s partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the forefront too is an increasingly belligerent North Korea, which fired an intercontinental ballistic missile designed to strike the US just hours before Kishida and Yoon held a summit in Tokyo in March.

“I would like to have a full and frank exchange with President Yoon based on a relationship of trust,” Kishida told reporters in Tokyo before his departure for Seoul.

The Biden administration has been seeking help from partners such as Seoul and Tokyo to impose sweeping curbs on the sale of advanced chips equipment to China in a policy aimed at preventing the country’s progression in a range of cutting-edge technologies.

US efforts may have been a factor in the restoration of Seoul-Tokyo ties, said Kak Soo Shin, a former career diplomat who once served as South Korea’s ambassador to Japan. Drivers could have also included concerns both countries share over the volatile security environment, mainly the challenge of addressing the North Korean nuclear threat and a “coercive China,” he said.

“It has been quite abnormal for Korea and Japan to leave their relationship in such a miserable situation for such a long time,” Shin said. “It was a lose-lose situation that the two countries have been trapped in a vicious cycle of fraying relationship, even though they could be natural strategic partners amid the flux of their strategic settings.”

Kishida and Yoon are likely to discuss issues surrounding security and high-tech industries, as well as restore shuttle diplomacy that was derailed more than a decade ago to political friction, the South Korea president’s office said.

A formal summit between the two leaders was held in March in Tokyo for the first time in 12 years, followed by a security dialog in April and a meeting of their finance ministers last week.

Yoon has been a supporter of Washington’s Asia strategy, including President Joe Biden’s initiative to restructure global supply chains to reduce dependence on China. Japan in March said it will expand restrictions on exports of 23 types of leading-edge chipmaking technology, even as its trade officials repeatedly said it was not targeted at China.

The last visit by a Japanese premier to South Korea came in 2018 when then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended the opening of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and held talks separately with then-President Moon Jae-in. The last formal bilateral summit in Seoul by a Japanese leader was in October 2011.

Troubled History

Yoon proposed a resolution for the long-standing dispute over compensation for Japan’s use of Korean forced labor during its 1910-45 occupation of the peninsula. His proposal, which involves South Korean firms contributing to a compensation fund for conscripted Korean workers, has not been well-received by the majority of the local public.

The payments were meant to avoid forcing Japanese companies to provide compensation, in line with Tokyo’s contention all such claims were settled under a 1965 agreement. Biden’s administration welcomed the move, calling it a “groundbreaking” deal.

In the wake of the move, South Korea reinstated Japan to its list of preferred trading partners in April. Later that month, Japan’s trade ministry started seeking public opinions on restoring South Korea to Tokyo’s list of preferred trading partners, in a procedural step that would eventually streamline the export processes to South Korea.

A key task for Kishida is to understand the domestic criticism Yoon has faced on his proposal to end the dispute over compensation, said Naoko Aoki, an associate political scientist at the Rand Corp. in Washington.

Read: Why South Korea-Japan Ties Are Plagued by History: QuickTake

“I don’t think Prime Minister Kishida can make everyone happy, but whether he can allay some of the concerns being voiced in South Korea would be an important part of the visit,” she said.

The summit in Seoul could also help in a show of support for Taiwan, which China sees as a part of its territory that must be returned, even if by force. In a visit by Yoon to Washington in April, South Korea made its strongest statement yet on the Taiwan Strait by expressing strong opposition to any unilateral actions in the region — in comments that echoed statements from the Kishida government.

“It’s important to recognize that the primary reason for trilateral cooperation involving the United States is to support Taiwan,” said Cheon Seong-whun, former security strategy secretary in South Korea’s presidential office. “As such, engaging in collective strategic dialogue with China is crucial. The emphasis should be on arms control instead of an arms race,” he said.

Curtailing China’s expanding nuclear arsenal is set to be a subject of discussion later this month with Kishida hosts a Group of Seven leaders’ summit in Hiroshima. Yoon has been invited and expected to join the Japanese premier and Biden for three-way talks on the sidelines.

“I don’t think either of the two countries want to see the region reshaped and dominated by China’s increasing military capability and economic coercion,” Aoki of Rand said.

–With assistance from Takashi Hirokawa and Shinhye Kang.

(Updates with Kishida’s arrival.)

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