China, Japan, and South Korea have held trilateral meetings this week to discuss increased economic cooperation and to restore trade and security ties. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye released a joint statement: The three counties have agreed to resume regular trilateral meetings, once a routine occurrence that was halted in 2012 due to China’s intensified poor feelings towards Japan.
China and South Korea agree Japan has not done enough to atone for brutality imposed by Japanese troops on Chinese civilians during World War II. Though long ago, this history has remained a very sensitive topic for Chinese people, prolonging a strong disliking—and even hatred—for the Japanese through the years. Adding to this historical context is more recent heightened tension between China and Japan regarding sovereignty and influence the East China Sea—a region controlled by Japan for many years, but now heavily sought after by China.
Here is a look at how these meetings will likely impact the region:
Trade: The continuation of these trilateral meetings is a significant sign for regional diplomatic progress, as the three countries represent the three largest economies in East Asia. Ensuring steady trade relations with South Korea and Japan is a promising advancement for China, which is currently advocating continued economic development and stimulation through healthy regional relations. This is particularly prevalent following recently finalized Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, in which China was not included. As the Chinese economy begins to shows signs of a notable slowdown, positive trade relations with Japan and South Korea will become ever more important. With this in mind, it appears China is currently getting a jumpstart on blueprinting a strategy for the future.
Security: The trilateral meetings also serve as a considerable step towards safeguarding regional security. The three countries are using these regular meetings as a platform for maintaining their mutual goal of denuclearizing North Korea—a rogue state that has shown no sign of diplomatic cooperation with its regional neighbors and continues to serve as a plausible threat to global security and peace. Should these countries surrounding North Korea—particularly China and Japan—successfully restore security cooperation and trust through these meetings, positive trilateral relations will only make it harder for North Korea to further its proliferation goals.
These renewed meetings are also very timely for China, which now faces apparent increased pressure from the U.S. over maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Though the U.S. is still at a very early stage of defining its naval strategy in the region with regard to China, last week’s Obama administration decision to send a missile-guided destroyer within 12 miles of China’s recently constructed man-made Subi Reef suggests a more forceful stance towards China’s maritime strategy.
With this as another major consideration for China’s approach to foreign policy in the Eastern Hemisphere, improved security relations with Japan and South Korea will be a strong protective measure, as China seeks to become a trusted security partner. Steadier security relations with its Northeast Asian neighbors could theoretically serve as a mechanism for China to gradually weaken longstanding U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea—effectively shifting regional power dynamics. Of course, this process, if even plausible long term, would take many years to evolve—an outcome the U.S. will be fully committed to avoiding.
Relations between China and its immediate neighbors have been historically complex. The modern era has proven equally complicated and uncertain as China continues to establish its place as a global power—while regional countries, and the world more broadly, attempt to accommodate this unprecedented rise. Though China has entered only an initial stage of what is sure to be a long and dynamic tenure of strength and influence—economically, politically, and militarily—the partnerships that form during the present time will speak loudly about China’s direction into the future.
Should positive trilateral relations between China, Japan, and South Korea truly stick going forward—an expectation loaded with any number of variables and conditions that could shift in a negative direction almost overnight—China’s policy towards regional trade and security may very well become more defined and transparent for the global community.
But let us not speak too soon.
About the author:
David Solomon, a 2013 graduate of Skidmore College, lived in China for three years, where he pursued Mandarin language, history, political, and environmental studies at Tsinghua University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, and Suzhou University. He has also worked in Chinese economic development and has traveled extensively throughout China and other parts of Asia. David currently resides in Washington, D.C., where he works in U.S.-China trade relations.