China's President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. (AP Photo/Kim Kyung-Hoon, Pool)
China's President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. (AP Photo/Kim Kyung-Hoon, Pool)

Severe bilateral strains in Japan’s relationships with China and South Korea have retrenched high-level political cooperation in Northeast Asia. Japan-China ties took a nose-dive in September 2012 after then- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda made the fateful decision to purchase three of the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu to China) Islands in the East China Sea. It is good news that the standoff between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping is over after their quick meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit last month in Beijing. But the surly expressions from both sides in front of the camera, along with their cautiously orchestrated statement preceding the meeting, demonstrate the powerful domestic constraints towards a more fulsome détente.

Meanwhile, albeit not as geostrategically volatile as Japan-China ties, the fractured relationship between Seoul and Tokyo also appears intractable, with the two key US allies in a constant tit-for-tat game of political one-upmanship. This divide between Japan and South Korea also is rooted in history, with the focus being on the unresolved issues of comfort women, history textbooks and the territorial dispute over Dokdo-Takeshima. At the same time, South Korea’s relationship with China appears to be soaring to new heights highlighted by a newly inked Free Trade Agreement, increased dialogue on North Korea and a series of state visits by both leaders over the past two years.  

But despite the mistrust and hedging in the Northeast Asian triangle, there continues to be some tangible cooperation at the trilateral level. Last month, senior officials from Japan, South Korea and China met in Tokyo for the sixth round of negotiations for the China-Japan-Korea Free Trade Agreement (CJK FTA). The last round of negotiations was held in September in Beijing. If realized, the trade pact would bring together Asia’s two largest economies along with South Korea which is the 4th largest on the continent — a combination that would exceed more than $15 trillion USD as measured by GDP. Some of the key issues being negotiated surround intellectual property rights and competition policies. There are also issues such as market access and removing sensitive tariffs in all of the countries that have traditionally proved insurmountable.

The economic tides in Northeast Asia are changing quickly due to China’s continued growth and the massive scope of free trade agreements being negotiated in the region — both bilaterally and multilaterally. The recently signed China-South Korea FTA was more than a decade in the making and helps iron out some of the issues in the trilateral context. Moreover, while Tokyo's negotiations have stalled with South Korea on a bilateral FTA, there are still layered tracks due to talks on the multilateral Chinese-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as well as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) through which Japan is a member and South Korea has shown interest in joining.

Aside from the economic benefits, the CJK FTA holds importance in promoting stronger regionalism writ large in Northeast Asia — a region plagued by competing nationalisms, strategic mistrust and numerous potential flash points. Indeed, the CJK FTA underlines cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing via the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS), which is the mechanism that is supposed to drive trilateral cooperation on a range of areas including the environment, economics and security issues. The TCS proved to be a successful vehicle for trilateral cooperation until it was essentially boycotted at the high-level by China after Japan’s purchase of the three islands in the East China Sea in 2012. Up until that point, there had been annual summits between the three leaders and regular meetings between the respective foreign ministers.

Frigid Sino-Japanese ties have been the largest obstacle to high-level trilateral cooperation over the past two years. China has refused to entertain the idea of a trilateral summit in fear that it would validate Abe’s desire for stronger ties with Beijing without concessions on history or their territorial dispute over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands. But things might be changing after the Abe-Xi meeting at APEC and there is some optimism that a trilateral summit at the head of state level will take place sometime in the coming months. The potential meeting has been officially endorsed by Park and Abe, but Beijing remains aloof on confirming its attendance. An easier first step could be a trilateral meeting at the foreign-minister level, which may happen in the coming weeks.   

These recent steps at the political level have reinvigorated the TCS, which has been continually working on trilateral efforts even during the two-year freeze in Japan-China ties. For example, the three countries routinely meet at the ministerial level on environmental and climate change issues and have looked at ways trilaterally to reduce urban air pollution. The TCS has also served as a good platform for cooperation on other issues. Last month, health ministers from the three countries met in Beijing to discuss ways to mitigate the potential spread of the Ebola virus as well as other issues such as the promotion of universal health coverage. Moreover, the three sides continue to meet trilaterally to discuss a number of other important areas including international finance, energy, disaster management and the exchange of culture and the arts.

The work of the TCS at the issue-specific level is important for building empathy trilaterally on a wide range of issues that transcend the politically sensitive areas such as security cooperation. But trilateral cooperation is also useful because it serves as political camouflage (especially for China but also for South Korea) and does not garner the attention in respective domestic media, as would efforts to repair bilateral relations with Japan. Of course, this is not to imply that the trilateral track should proceed without efforts to improve relations at the bilateral level. Indeed, efforts need to be made in both areas, as well as enriching exchanges at the non-government and corporate levels. This comprehensive approach, buttressed by trilateral cooperation, is the best way to improve the web of bilateral relations between Japan, China and South Korea.    

Next: David Welch on how to fix  Japan-Korea relations (Part 3)

J. Berkshire Miller is a fellow on East Asia for the EastWest Institute and is also fellow and chair of the Japan-Korea Working Group for the Pacific Forum CSIS. The views expressed are solely his own.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.