China, Japan, South Korea seek summit in latest bid to ease relations

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By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) -China, Japan and South Korea agreed on Sunday to restart cooperation and pave the way for a summit in the latest move to ease tensions between the Asian neighbours.

Even as China and the United States seek to mend frayed ties, including a summit this month between Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, Beijing is concerned that Washington and its key regional allies are strengthening their three-way partnership.

Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo had agreed on annual summits from 2008 to bolster diplomatic and economic exchanges, but two-way rows and the COVID pandemic interrupted the plan, with the three leaders last meeting in 2019.

The three foreign ministers met in the South Korean port of Busan for their first such meeting since 2019, after officials of the three countries agreed in September to arrange a trilateral summit at the "earliest convenient time".

The three ministers did not specify a timeframe for the summit.

China's Xi, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol may not be able to meet this year, but their summit is likely in the near future, South Korea's national security adviser, Cho Tae-yong, told Yonhap news TV.

The ministers agreed in their 100-minute talks to advance cooperation in six areas, including security, economy and technology, and promote concrete discussions to prepare for the summit, Japan's foreign ministry said in a statement.

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, who was also concerned about North Korean issues, told his counterparts it was "important to further institutionalise trilateral cooperation so that it will develop into a stable and sustainable system", his ministry said in a statement.

China's Wang Yi said the three countries should "oppose ideological demarcation and resist putting regional cooperation into camps", in comments aimed at Seoul and Tokyo's alliance with Washington.

Wang also called on the three countries to restart negotiations on a trilateral free trade agreement as soon as possible, according to a Chinese foreign ministry readout.

Japan's Yoko Kamikawa said greater trilateral cooperation would contribute to regional peace as the international security situation has become "more severe and complex than ever".

In bilateral talks, Park and Kamikawa condemned North Korea's launch last week of its first spy satellite and agreed to boost responses to arms deals between Pyongyang and Moscow, Seoul's foreign ministry said in a statement.

Marring the co-operative tone, Kamikawa described as "extremely regrettable" a South Korean court's order for Japan to compensate a group of women forced to work in its wartime brothels and asked Seoul to take appropriate measures, Japan's Kyodo news agency said.

Park, meeting separately with China's Wang, invited him to visit Seoul, and they agreed to reinforce strategic communications, Seoul said. Park asked for China to play a constructive role in encouraging North Korea to avoid further provocations and take the path towards denuclearisation.

Beijing's foreign ministry said Wang warned Park not to politicise economic and technology issues, amid China-U.S. tension over semiconductors and other trade disputes.

Kamikawa, meeting Wang on Saturday, expressed hopes for a security dialogue between Tokyo and Beijing "in the near future". Wang highlighted the need for China and Japan to ensure they "do not pose a threat" to each another and respect the legitimate concerns of each, Beijing said.

South Korea's Yoon and Japan's Kishida have moved to mend ties frayed by history and trade feuds, holding a historic three-way summit in August with Biden.

In July, Wang warned that U.S. efforts to strengthen ties with Seoul and Tokyo could fan regional tension and spark confrontation.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Additional reporting by Sam Nussey and Daniel Leussink in Tokyo, Laurie Chen in Beijing and Hyunyoung Yi in Seoul; Editing by William Mallard, Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)