Northeast Asia Diplomacy: A Trilateral Way Forward?

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Northeast Asia Diplomacy: A Trilateral Way Forward?

A trilateral approach to China, Japan and South Korea relations may be able to do what bilateral negotiations cannot.

Northeast Asia Diplomacy: A Trilateral Way Forward?
Credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

After two years of diplomatic stagnancy between Japan and its two key Northeast Asian neighbors – China and South Korea – there has been renewed urgency by the administration of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reset relations by coordinating bilateral summits with his Chinese and Korean counterparts, Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye. With regard to China, Tokyo has been scrambling to arrange a meeting between Abe and Xi – even if it is merely cosmetic – in order to defuse tensions. Despite Abe’s persistence, however, Beijing has resisted the possibility, sticking to its position that Japan first must provide concessions – both in the East China Sea and on visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. The best chance of a meeting might be on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit to be hosted in Beijing in November.

On the issue of Japan-Korea ties, the bilateral route has also been unsuccessful since Abe took office in late 2012. Abe has consistently approached the Park government over the past year with hopes to end the impasse. But Park has dismissed the possibility as “pointless” given the Abe administration’s views on historical issues and his visit to Yasukuni Shrine last December. Meanwhile, many in Tokyo remain mired in “Korea fatigue,” as they question whether there is any solution that will be acceptable to the Blue House. The latest outreach from Abe, a visit by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to Seoul in September, was conducted in the hope that a Park-Abe summit might be realized either in October or November on the heels of international conferences.

Bilateral summits with China and South Korea – if they can be achieved – will be welcome but are likely to be limited in their substance and might actually prolong the current deep-freeze, as all sides will feel a pressure valve has been released. Therefore, alongside the bilateral process, it will be critical for all sides to step up efforts to use the trilateral summit process as the key venue for interaction – at least in the short term. One of the key reasons for this is that trilateral interaction provides Beijing and Seoul the political cover necessary to save face while still working towards repairing their fractured relationships with Tokyo.

The China-Japan-Korea (CJK) trilateral summit process was first held in 2008 in Japan, and resulted in six consecutive annual heads of state meetings until the summit was cancelled in 2013 because of Beijing’s refusal to meet in the wake of Japan’s September 2012 decision to purchase three of the disputed Senkaku Islands. Similarly, the sub-level trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting has also been sidelined, while Seoul and Beijing wait for the Abe administration to give way.

But while the trilateral track remains challenged, it has benefits as the lead process for engagement on economic issues, even as the players inch along the bilateral track in a bid to diplomatically manage their relationships. With regard to South Korea, although the Park administration remains cool to a bilateral summit with Abe, there has been more willingness to meet trilaterally. Indeed, Abe’s first meeting of substance with Park came in the Hague earlier this year as a trilateral meeting organized by the U.S. The one significant obstacle to a reinvigorating the trilateral process is Beijing, which has been stonewalling Abe’s overtures for a meeting until he relents on its preconditions. China’s refusal to be seen as losing face to Japan might be given political camouflage, however, through a focus on a pragmatic trilateral agenda.

There is some positive momentum in this direction. Last month, deputy foreign ministers from all three sides met in Seoul with the intention of reigniting the stalled process. Japan’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Shinsuke Sugiyama said that a return to trilateral summitry would “pave the way for (regional) future prosperity.” Korean Vice-Foreign Minister Lee Kyung-soo also echoed these thoughts, calling for a “reinvigorated” trilateral process. Indeed, despite the frosty ties, the three countries have been working through a Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS) that was initiated in 2011. The TCS, currently chaired by Japan, has resulted in enhancing a number of key areas of integration between all sides. For example, earlier this month there was a joint meeting of finance ministers and bank governors.  The TCS has also resulted in critical exchanges such as youth summits and academic conferences to share ideas on cultural issues in addition to economics.

In addition to the TCS, Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing have been negotiating an ambitious trilateral free trade agreement (CJKFTA) that would combine the world’s second and third biggest economies along with a booming South Korea market that has cracked the top fifteen globally. The CJKFTA, which had its fourth round of negotiations this past March, is also of critical importance in light of other multilateral trading pacts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP). The TPP excludes China, which magnifies the importance of the RCEP and the CJKFTA for Beijing. Meanwhile, Tokyo feels pressure to progress on the trilateral front due to fast-moving bilateral trade negotiations between China and Korea.

Another area of trilateral success is the annual meeting between environment ministers, focusing on joint efforts to combat climate change and engage in dialogue on air pollution, which has impacts that transcend national borders. At the latest meeting, all three sides agreed to expand green markets and support innovations from green companies. There was also recognition of the importance of fostering environmentally sustainable cities.

Of course, trilateral work has it limits and it won’t be able to singlehandedly repair Japan’s troubled bilateral relationships with its Northeast Asian neighbours. A progressive and incremental bilateral rapprochement between Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing must complement a robust trilateral agenda. But this two-track approach could allow pragmatic healing in Northeast Asia that is both inclusive and politically manageable.

J. Berkshire Miller is a fellow on East Asia for the EastWest Institute. He is also a fellow Japan and Chair of the Japan-Korea Working Group for the Pacific Forum CSIS. You can follow him on twitter @jbmllr.