Seoul: South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang discussed trade issues on Saturday, meeting one-on-one a day before their three-way summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that aims to repair relations strained by historical and territorial matters.
At the meeting between Park and Li at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, the countries reached an agreement to work toward ratifying by the end of the year a bilateral free trade agreement that has yet to gain approval from South Korean lawmakers, Park's office said.
The sides, two of the region's closest economic partners, also agreed to work toward expanding South Korean food exports to China and strengthening industrial cooperation in areas such as robotics.
There was speculation that Li might also seek assurance from Park that South Korea, a key US ally, will keep a neutral stance over the recent flare-up between Washington and Beijing over the US Navy's freedom of navigation operations in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
An official from the Blue House couldn't immediately confirm whether the issue came up during today's meeting. About 28,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea as deterrence against potential aggression from rival North Korea.
Tomorrow's trilateral summit will be the first since 2012. The meetings were shelved after Japan's ties with its two neighbours deteriorated over disputes stemming from its World War II-era aggression and territorial claims.
Park will meet separately with Abe on Monday in the first formal summit between South Korea and Japan in more than three years.
Japan and China have been gradually resuming exchanges following 2012 tensions over the control of disputed islands in the East China Sea. The rift began healing after diplomats agreed to restart contacts last November, when Chinese President Xi Jinping briefly met and shook hands with Abe.
Park has met with Xi six times since she took office in 2013, in efforts to further strengthen ties with Beijing. China is South Korea's largest trade partner, and also has leverage with North Korea, Seoul's hard-to-read, nuclear-armed rival.
However, Seoul's ties with Tokyo have been persistently icy after the hawkish Abe came to power in December 2012, with the countries struggling to settle disputes stemming from Japan's brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century. China has similar gripes with Japan.
The US wants Japan and South Korea, important allies in the region, to be on better terms to counter China's growing geopolitical influence, including in the South China Sea, and also to strengthen security cooperation against North Korea.
Earlier in the week, the US Navy sailed a warship close to one of China's artificial islands in the South China Sea.
It was most direct challenge yet by the US to artificial island building by Beijing that has upset other claimants in the South China Sea, including the Philippines, a close US ally.