By K. V. Kesavan
China, Japan and South Korea account for 24% of the global GDP and conduct $ 720 Billion worth of trade between themselves. Peace and mutual cooperation among them are closely connected with those of Northeast Asia. Though these three countries play a significant role in several regional mechanisms like the ASEAN+3, ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asian Summit and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (APEC), they do not have a regional forum for Northeast Asia itself.
This major hiatus has been mitigated to some extent by the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral forum which has been meeting since 2008. But unlike the other forums mentioned earlier, it has not been regular in its meeting schedules. Starting in 1998, it initially met on the sidelines of the ASEAN +3. In 2008, China, Japan and South Korea decided to meet separately independent of the ASEAN gathering. They held their summits regularly until 2012. There were no meetings during 2013 and 2014 due to strained relations between Japan and the two other countries. Though the summit met in 2015, again owing to differences on historical and territorial issues, the seventh summit was held in 2018 only after a gap of two years. One reason for the resumption of the meeting was the improving relations between North Korea and the US. There were high expectations on the possibilities of North Korea’s denuclearisation as well as reconciliation between North and South.
The trilateral meeting held in Chengdu in South-western China on 24 December 2019 provided a good opportunity for China, Japan and South Korea to discuss and exchange views on a number of issues including the North Korea’s denuclearisation, regional trade, and bilateral relations between the three countries.
The first and foremost issue that drew their attention was North Korea’s threat to stay away from the peace negotiations with the US. The trilateral meeting took place in the backdrop of Chairman Kim Jon- un’s strong denunciation of American policy and his unwillingness to pursue the peace process with the U.S. After the failure of peace talks at Hanoi in February 2019, he went back on his earlier policy and insisted on the US to relax on its position on sanctions. He followed it up by unilaterally resuming new short-range missile tests and warned the US that he would pursue an “unpredictable action” before the end of 2019. It aroused considerable concerns in Japan and South Korea that Pyongyang would test a new inter-continental ballistic missile before the end of the year. Meeting under these conditions, the three countries reaffirmed their determination to work together to bring North Korea and the US to the negotiating table as they wanted to quickly reduce the rising tensions between the US and North Korea. They shared the view that peace on the Korean Peninsula is in the common interest of all three countries and decided to work together to ensure the revival of dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. Apart from the usual joint press statement, they also released a joint vision statement which clearly articulated their views not only on Korean peace, but also on issues like regional trade, connectivity, science and technology cooperation and sustainable development.
Second, the three countries showed their interest in giving a boost to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation agreement (RCEP) by strongly supporting it. In addition, they also expressed their strong desire to see that a tripartite free trade agreement is also reached as early as possible. It may be recalled that talks for tripartite agreement began in 2002 itself, but they picked up momentum only from 2012 onwards. Though more than ten rounds of negotiations have already taken place, it appears that it will take more time before they could come to an agreement on the issue. It is of interest to note that China and South Korea have already signed a free trade agreement between themselves.
Third, the Chengdu summit provided a great opportunity to both Japan and South Korea to start their efforts to repair their long stalemated relations. During the last one year, bilateral relations had sunk to the lowest level in a decade. It all started in October 2018 when a South Korean judicial verdict asked two Japanese business houses to make compensation “for forcible labour” to Korean laboureres employed by them during the Japanese colonial period. The Japanese government protested against the verdict on the ground that all such past claims had already been settled in 1965 when both countries signed the normalization agreement. As the South Korean government opposed the Japanese interpretation, the controversy tended to escalate into a trade dispute between the two. In July 2019, Japan imposed restrictions on its supply of some key semi-conductor related materials on Seoul and also removed it from the list of countries enjoying preferential treatment in semi-conductor trade. As the issue escalated, South Korea also took a decision to discontinue the renewal of a key military intelligence exchange agreement with Japan. The General Security of Military Information Agreement ( GSOMIA) was a key arrangement meant to monitor especially the nuclear and missile activities of North Korea. Finally, due to heavy pressures exerted by the US, ROK agreed continue the GSOMIA barely a few hours before its expiry.
It was under these circumstances that President Moon and Prime Minister Abe met at Chengdu that considerably alleviated tensions in their relations. It is worth noting that this was their first formal meeting in fifteen months. How their relations will play out in the coming days needs to be watched since both Abe and Moon are under the influence of domestic constituencies moved by populist trends. It appears that they have to go a long way before they can establish mutual trust in their relations.
Fourth, both China and Japan are now in a mood to improve their relations, and Abe met President Xi Jinping and other leaders to see that Xi Jinping makes a formal visit to Japan in the coming spring. Abe believes that Xi’s visit will usher in a new era in the bilateral relations. Chengdu summit also seems to suggest that President Trump’s security and economic policies have created a great deal of uncertainty that drives the East Asian countries to increasingly bond together.