China courts US’s top Asian allies on trade, but will it succeed?

Chinese Premier Li Qiang met the Japanese and South Korean leaders during a two-day visit to Seoul. PHOTO: LEE JIN-MAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Chinese Premier Li Qiang met the Japanese and South Korean leaders during a two-day visit to Seoul. PHOTO: LEE JIN-MAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS


Despite Beijing’s calls to avoid protectionism, the three countries didn’t reach any concrete initiatives.

China sought to drive a wedge on trade between the U.S. and its Asian allies, using a rare exchange with the leaders of Japan and South Korea to champion a multipolar world without economic discrimination.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang, on a two-day visit to Seoul, touted the merits of harmonizing economic ties between the three Asian countries, as Washington has moved to raise tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles and curb China’s high-tech ambitions. Chinese leader Xi Jinping carried a similar message on his recent trip to Europe.

“We should resolve suspicions and misunderstandings through honest dialogue, uphold bilateral relations with a spirit of strategic autonomy, promote a multipolar world and oppose bloc confrontation and factionalism," Li said at a joint press conference on Monday.

For all the overtures toward cooperation, Japan and South Korea, like Europe, have limitations in drawing economically closer to China—even if the prevalence of U.S. tariffs brings some shared irritation.

In a joint statement, the three leaders vowed to hold regular trilateral meetings and to cooperate on trade and clean-energy efforts. They also said they would promote people-to-people exchanges through tourism and education.

Despite China’s calls to avoid protectionism, the three countries didn’t reach any concrete initiatives to that end. Instead, they agreed to “continue communication in the field of export control."

China ranks as the top trading partner for both Japan and South Korea, with their economic fates tied together on everything from semiconductors to electric vehicles. But in recent years, Seoul and Tokyo have hit new heights in their security and political bonds with Washington. Of the few world leaders to receive a state visit during President Biden’s time in office, two are Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

Monday’s trilateral meeting was the first such get-together between China, Japan and South Korea since December 2019.

China’s primary concern has been discouraging South Korea and Japan from imposing further restrictions on exports to China, amid the intensifying trade rivalry between Washington and Beijing. The resumption of high-level talks mark progress, but China will continue to face limitations in convincing the U.S. allies to pursue more robust trade ties with Beijing, analysts say.

“China hopes to use the trilateral summit to prevent two of its erstwhile regional partners from drifting too far into Washington’s orbit," said Jeremy Chan, a senior analyst at Eurasia Group, a political-risk consulting firm.

The U.S. recently applied tariffs to $18 billion in products from China including EV batteries and semiconductors. Keeping with tradition, Li, who is responsible for day-to-day management of China’s economy, was dispatched in place of Xi, reinforcing Beijing’s message that it prefers to focus on business and trade rather than security issues.

Li, Yoon and Kishida said they would accelerate negotiations for a first-ever trilateral free-trade agreement, which have been stalled since 2019.

Even amid the diplomatic niceties of cooperation and partnership, the three countries’ deep differences on military and security matters bubbled to the surface.

In separate statements, Yoon and Kishida called on North Korea to refrain from launching a satellite, which Pyongyang had notified Tokyo it would do in the hours before the trilateral summit. Such a test violates United Nations Security Council resolutions. Li didn’t comment on North Korea’s plans, but urged “relevant parties" to exercise restraint.

Kishida, in a bilateral meeting with Li on Sunday, conveyed that Japan was closely monitoring relevant developments, including military activities, across the Taiwan Strait, calling it “extremely important" for the international community. Days earlier, China kick-started large-scale combat drills around Taiwan. Li said Taiwan is at the core of China’s interests, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Japan and South Korea can’t explicitly align with China against U.S. tariffs because it could hurt their political relationship with Washington, but the trilateral indirectly shows that unilateral policies from Washington can push its allies closer to Beijing, said Tongfi Kim, a research professor in Asian geopolitics at the Brussels School of Governance.

“The allies’ dependence on U.S. military protection will limit their autonomy in the economic sphere, but Washington cannot expect the allies to comply with its demands blindly," he said.

China has repeatedly warned against NATO’s expansion into the Asia-Pacific as the group plans to set up a liaison office in Tokyo and has invited Japan and South Korea, non-NATO partners, to summits. On Sunday, Li warned Seoul against politicizing trade and economic issues.

One potential area for collaboration is a three-way free-trade agreement. Talks first kicked off in 2012, though had stalled in recent years.

Past efforts to pursue an agreement never got off the ground and striking deals that would go beyond light commitments are even more complicated in the current environment, said Wendy Cutler, vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

“The U.S. will be counting on its two allies not to undermine their robust economic security agenda with Washington by embracing requests from China in the technology space in particular," Cutler said.

But even as the U.S. cultivates stronger political ties with Tokyo and Seoul, businesses in both Korea and Japan share some common ground with the Chinese in that they all stand to lose from higher U.S. tariffs and investment restrictions. In a Sunday evening meeting with Samsung’s head, Lee Jae-yong, Li encouraged South Korean businesses including the conglomerate to expand investment in China. The Korean tech giant has faced challenges in navigating U.S. export controls to cut Beijing’s access to advanced chips.

Japan is eager to maintain conventional supply chains with China, although it shares U.S. concerns over supplying advanced chips to Beijing, and will look to secure Chinese components “in a way that wouldn’t get on America’s nerves," said Yorizumi Watanabe, a former Japanese diplomat and president of Fuji Women’s University.

The three sides seem content on using their meeting to signal the resumption of regular communications by committing to cooperation on common challenges, said Patricia M. Kim, a China foreign-policy expert at Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

“No one has any illusions that the lines of alignment in northeast Asia will be redrawn through this summit or anytime soon," Kim said.

Write to Dasl Yoon at, Brian Spegele at and Chieko Tsuneoka at

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