By Aileen Wang and Nick Edwards
BEIJING (Reuters) - China will hold three rounds of trade negotiations with Japan and South Korea this year and step up talks with other trading partners, the Ministry of Commerce said on Tuesday, as U.S. efforts to seal a trans-Pacific free trade deal gather pace.
China said the first set of talks on a three-way free trade agreement (FTA) with its two neighbors would be staged in Seoul, the South Korean capital, from March 26-28. They will then move to China, with a third leg to be held in Japan, ministry spokesman Shen Danyang told a news conference.
The talks are seen by analysts as a two-pronged initiative by Beijing to engage with Japan after recent diplomatic tension over disputed island territory in the East China Sea, while also countering the "pivot" by the United States to reaffirm its role in Asia in the face of China's economic rise.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last week that Tokyo would seek to join the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks that currently bring together the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore.
Bringing the world's third-largest economy into the negotiations would set the stage for a final agreement covering nearly 40 percent of world's economic output, but could also isolate China in the process.
"We will improve communications and talks with the related parties and push forward the progress of our own free trade areas," Shen told reporters when asked to respond to Japan's plan to join TPP negotiations.
"We always think that every economy in the world has the right to participate in the process of world economic integration and we always take an open and inclusive attitude for all efforts to push for regional and world cooperation," Shen said.
"We also think that any regional or bilateral free trade agreement should be only a complement to the multi-lateral trade system, not a replacement for it," he said.
Shen gave no dates for any of the later talks he said were planned as part of the three-way China-Japan-South Korea pact.
The three nations last held ministerial-level talks on a free trade deal four months ago during the East Asia Summit held in Cambodia.
(Reporting by Nick Edwards; Editing by Paul Tait)