From 20-22 August, Beijing hosted a remarkable event: a meeting between Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister and his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, Taro Kono and Kang Kyung-wha. The meeting included both bilateral and trilateral talks.
The event was billed as the latest in a series of attempts to breathe new life into an old project, the planned comprehensive (primarily economic) cooperation between the three leading East Asian nations. This proposal was discussed throughout the second half of the 1990s, with the first meeting at the ministerial level taking place in 1999. And, precisely 20 years later, the seventh such meeting took place.
During that period the situations of each of the three countries in the “triangle” changed a number of times. In fact, the only thing that has not changed is the basic fact that the “triangle” as a single unit, has never shown any signs of life. And we should point out before going any further that the latest meeting in Beijing, like the previous ones, failed to achieve anything more than a statement of intention to “continue working”.
However, back at the end of the last decade observers were of the opinion that a free trade zone between the three countries was a realistic proposal, and that the participants should proceed to the practical arrangements for setting up the body.
It is worth noting that in the middle of the current decade the combined GDP of China, Japan and South Korea accounted for more than 20% of the global GDP, and 70% of the region’s (i.e. East Asia’s) GDP. Thus the potential significance of this free trade zone would be equal to that of the CPTPP “partnership” agreement between 11 countries in Asia, North and South America, which entered into effect at the beginning of this year.
Japan is the de facto leader of the CPTPP, and, like China and South Korea, it is also a member of several other free trade agreements, including one with the EU. The existence of free trade zones, operating in different ways and often overlapping, is one of the most important characteristics of the modern global economy. But the current US administration’s preference for protectionist policies runs directly counter to this principle. In fact, the conflict between these two opposite tendencies is one of the main defining features of the current phase in the “great game” of global politics.
As for the plans to form the tripartite free trade zone discussed above, these are being derailed by current political disagreements. There has never been a shortage of mutual disagreements between the various combinations of countries making up the above triangle, but in recent years these have been particularly heated, flaring up at the most inopportune moments.
For example, in autumn 2012, when the time seemed ripe for China and Japan to sign a treaty, the relations between the two countries took a sudden turn for the worse. On that occasion the reason- or pretext for the dispute was the Japanese government’s decision to buy 3 (of 5) uninhabited Senkaku – or Diaoyu – Islands in the South China Sea from a private seller. These islands, controlled by Tokyo, are claimed by Beijing.
The dispute escalated – there were confrontations between the two countries’ coastal patrol vessels and large-scale anti-Japanese demonstrations took place in China, with angry crowds threatening to attack Japanese organizations. And, for the first time, China was able to use its effective monopoly of the market in rare-earth minerals – essential for the modern electronics and IT industries – as a weapon against its opponent.
That dispute put an end to any talk of a trade agreement between China and Japan. All official contacts between the two countries were put on hold for several years. They were only revived at the end of 2015, and even then there was no real progress in relations between China and Japan for the next year and a half.
It required a global upheaval of earthquake proportions to restart the process. The upheaval in question was the radical restructuring of the international political and economical status quo that began when Donald Trump became President of the number one world power, the USA.
In this magazine we have discussed on a number of occasions the reasons for the dramatic improvement in relations between China and Japan that began at that moment. This positive – and very important – trend was confirmed at the end of June this year, when the two countries’ leaders met together on very friendly terms in the most recent G-20 Summit. Two months later an equally friendly atmosphere prevailed when the Japanese Foreign Minister, Taro Kono, visited Beijing to discuss the proposed trilateral agreement with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.
During the meeting, the two ministers focused on the agreement of two competing projects: China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) and the CPTPP, led by Japan.
They also discussed the prospects of the long-mooted and ambitious RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) and shared their intentions concerning this project, in which China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, and the 10 ASEAN countries would all take part. It seems that the RCEP has a good chance of being launched due to the USA’s current lack of interest in any kind of international integration projects. The optimists are therefore confident that the launch can go ahead without the USA’s spoiling things. But that, we would suggest, is far from obvious. In addition there are a number of very evident political problems within the RCEP group, which could well obstruct this project.
As for the chances of a free trade zone composed of China, Japan and South Korea, currently relations along two of the sides of the triangle (China and Japan, China and South Korea) seem quite positive, but the third side is a problem- relations between Japan and South Korea are not good at all. That last factor makes it pointless to enter into any concrete talks about this free trade zone, and it is unlikely that the proposal was discussed at any length in the meeting between the three foreign ministers in Beijing.
Recently this magazine has devoted a lot of space to discussions of the facts behind the current poor state of relations between South Korea and Japan. Relations which have never been very good, to put it mildly. One way to get a general idea of this complex political situation is to look at some photographs illustrating various stages in their relations.
One photograph that made the rounds of world media outlets in spring 2014 speaks for itself: it shows the US, Japanese and South Korean leaders at a press conference in the margins of an event in the Hague. The event gave the US President, Barak Obama, the excuse to sit at the same table as the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and the South Korean President Park Geun-hye. In a photograph taken at that very moment, the US President’s trademark smile contrasts vividly with the cold and clearly unimpressed expressions of the two Asian leaders.
Since then we have seen the same picture, with minor variations, on a regular basis every time (for whatever reason) official representatives of Japan and South Korea find themselves next to each other. The most recent example was in Bangkok at the beginning of August this year, during an ordinary ASEAN ministerial-level meeting. In one of the photographs recording the preparations for the formal group portrait, we see the heavily-built figure of Mike Pompeo trying to draw the slim and clearly unwilling Japanese and South Korean Foreign Ministers towards him by the sleeves of their jackets.
And just three weeks later sharp-eyed journalists observed a similar scene in Beijing. We should point out, by the way, that China has talked about the possibility of its taking over the role of mediator from the USA in an attempt to halt the downwards spiral of hostility in the relations between Japan and South Korea. And as soon as the meeting in Beijing ended, those relations spiraled downwards even further.
In these extremely challenging circumstances, we wish the Chinese government the best of success in this task. After all, according to certain speculations in the media, the next turn in that downwards spiral could be a break in diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.