Photo/Illutration Japanese trade minister Hiroshi Kajiyama, front, speaks to reporters in Beijing on Dec. 22. (Naoyuki Fukuda)

BEIJING--Trade ministers from Japan, China and South Korea agreed to continue working toward a free trade agreement (FTA) in their first talks in three years held here on Dec. 22.

The ministers also agreed to bolster cooperation against protectionism and adopted a joint statement aiming to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade agreement in 2020.

On the sidelines, the Japan and South Korean ministers did not discuss Japan's tightening of export controls in July against South Korea of three chemicals used to manufacture semiconductors and electronic devices, which hurt bilateral relations.

However, both ministers engaged in a brief conversation for a few minutes.

Japanese trade minister Hiroshi Kajiyama told reporters that he had a brief discussion while standing with his South Korean counterpart, Sung Yon-mo, after the trilateral trade meeting.

Asked by reporters whether he talked with Sung about the dispute, Kajiyama said no. As for what the two ministers discussed, Kajiyama just said they talked about the agreement between the three countries made that day.

On Dec. 16 in Tokyo, trade officials at the bureau chief level of the two nations held a discussion over the export controls imposed on South Korea.

On Dec. 20, Japan eased controls on exports to South Korea of one of the three chemicals.

Ahead of talks on Dec. 24 in Chengdu, China, between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of a trilateral summit, the possibility of the two trade ministers holding a meeting had gathered attention.

According to the joint announcement after the trilateral trade talks, the three nations pledged to sign RCEP, which they will participate in along with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in addition to Australia and New Zealand.

The joint statement did not mention India, which has announced its withdrawal from the RCEP agreement.

The statement also confirmed that the three Asian nations will make efforts to conclude an FTA, which seeks to achieve a higher level of trade liberalization, at an early stage and that they will support the reformation of the embattled World Trade Organization (WTO), which is facing an impending shutdown.

(This article was written by Hiroki Ito and Naoyuki Fukuda.)