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Common ground

Jonathan Miller, Tokyo
August 23, 2016

On Wednesday, foreign ministers from Japan, China and South Korea will hold a summit in Tokyo to discuss areas of cooperation. As Jonathan Miller writes, ties between them remain strained.

Asien trilaterale Zusammenarbeit Japan China und Südkorea Symbolbild
Image: Getty Images/P. Kujundzic

The chasm was fuelled largely as a result of the toxic state of bilateral relations between Tokyo and Beijing over their territorial dispute in the East China Sea surrounding the Senkaku (Diaoyu to China) islands. Compounding the tensions in this triangle are historical issues from the World War II period and the perception, widely held in Seoul and Beijing, that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is bent on revising the traditional narrative of Japan's culpability during the war.

Despite, the rocky relations there remains a pressing need for trilateral cooperation between the three sides. Tokyo, Bejiing and Seoul are highly interdependent economically and - combined - have a gross domestic product worth more than $16.5 trillion (14.7 trillion euros), nearly matching that of the United States and more than doubling that of India, Russia, Australia and ASEAN combined.

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Trade ties

In an attempt to enhance these trading relationships, the three sides are moving forward on a CJK Free Trade Agreement (CJK FTA) that would lower barriers to more comprehensive integration. The trade pact has now undertaken 10 rounds of negotiation and, if realized, would enable a stronger imperative for institutionalizing trilateral cooperation. The latest round in negotiations took place in June and the CJK FTA has been progressing despite regional tensions.

China's relations with South Korea have also grown dramatically over the past three years capped by the signature and ratification of their landmark bilateral free trade agreement and Seoul's decision to join Beijing's Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB). Despite this, South Korea still needs to balance its relationship with China alongside its alliance with the United States. Seoul also is wary of Beijing's sustained ties and lifeline to North Korea.

There has been a fair bit of questioning on whether this week's meeting would go ahead, as a result of heightening tensions over the year between Japan and China. Indeed, the fact that the meeting is in Tokyo is - in itself - a significant indication. This is the first time that a trilateral foreign ministers meeting has taken place in Japan since 2011 - preceding the recent dip in Japan-China relations and before Japan's controversial purchase of three of the disputed Senkaku islands from a private Japanese owner in September 2012. The meeting venue is also of importance, because it is the first time a foreign ministers dialogue with China is being held in Japan since Xi Jinping took the reigns of power in China in 2012.

man in front of building copyright: Jonathan Miller
Jonathan MillerImage: privat

Ties between Japan and China had a slight reprieve over the past couple of years, demonstrated by Beijing's reluctant willingness to break the stalemate and hold summit meetings with Abe both in China and overseas. There also has been increased dialogue between senior bureaucrats and resuscitated talks on security and maritime affairs and high-level commitments to implement crisis avoidance mechanisms to avert a potential clash over their dispute in the East China Sea. Meanwhile, Abe has toned down his revisionist talk on history and avoided visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine - which houses Japan's war dead, including some war criminals from World War II.

Testing times

China however remains uneasy about a rapprochement with Japan and has been ramping up its efforts over the past year to coercively alter the status quo in the East China Sea through a suite of provocations - including intrusions of both the air and maritime space surrounding the disputed isles. Beijing also remains irate at Tokyo for his active support of littoral states in Southeast Asia that have disputes with China in the South China Sea. China has subsequently warned Japan not to cross a "red-line" and join the United States in freedom of navigation patrols in the disputed waters.

Ties between Japan and South Korea have also been strained over the past few years and reached their nadir during the tenure Abe, who took office in late 2012, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who entered the Blue House in early 2013. But while problems persist in relations between Tokyo and Seoul, there has been a gradual dialing back of tensions following last December's deal on the issue of "comfort women" forced to provide sexual services to Japanese military officials during the war period. Both sides have stressed the need to focus on "forward-looking" ties and common challenges - such as the pressing need to work together with their common US ally in order to deter the sustained provocations from North Korea.

Therefore, the summit is a test case for three separate bilateral relationships and their convergence on common areas and shared challenges.

J. Berkshire Miller is an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also a fellow on East Asia with the EastWest Institute.