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Incremental progress

By ZHANG YUN | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-06-11 07:43
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Pessimism about trilateral cooperation among China, Japan and the ROK is unjustified

The China-Japan-the Republic of Korea trilateral summit meeting resumed last month in Seoul after a four-and-half-year hiatus. With the issuing of a joint declaration, the event heralds a promising revival of cooperation among the three neighbors.

However, some analysts said the summit failed to achieve any progress on the Korean Peninsula security issue, and in the context of the ongoing China-United States tensions, there is limited room for improvement of relations between China and the two major allies of the US in East Asia. Some claimed that with the rise of Chinese economy, the complementarity among the three East Asian economies has been replaced by competition.

In fact, pessimism about China-Japan-ROK cooperation and Northeast Asian regionalism is nothing new, as there have long been voices saying that the soil for cooperation in this region doesn't exist.

There is a tendency to compare Northeast Asian regionalism with the integration of Europe. But it is misleading to judge the nature and level of integration of other regions against the standards of Europe, and thereby conclude that East Asia lacks the soil for cooperation. The historical legacy of disputes and the divided Korean Peninsula dictate that East Asian regionalism will progress at a different pace compared with that of Europe.

While the level of institutionalization of China-Japan-ROK cooperation needs improvement, that doesn't negate the progress the three neighbors have made in regional cooperation. The trilateral cooperation was initiated during the 1997 Asian financial crisis under the framework of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Given that China and the ROK established diplomatic ties only five years earlier, it was quite an accomplishment to form a cooperation mechanism in such a short period of time.

In 2008, the three countries held their first summit outside of the ASEAN framework; in 2014, an investment deal among the three countries took effect; in 2015, China and the ROK signed a free trade deal; and with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership coming into effect in 2022, free trade among China, the ROK and Japan was realized indirectly, with the trade volume reaching nearly $800 billion that year. These are remarkable results of economic cooperation.

There are some who claim that China's rapid economic and technological advancements have weakened the economic complementarity among the three economies.

But in actuality, the three countries have achieved win-win development through building integrated regional industry and supply chains.

Revisiting history helps us understand the issue. After the Plaza Accord was signed in the mid-1980s, the Japanese yen appreciated rapidly against US dollar. As a consequence, Japanese enterprises started investing in other East Asian nations, initiating the restructuring of regional industry chains; from the 1980s to 1990s, the rise of economy in the ROK, one of the Four Asian Tigers, sparked a new wave of industry chain reconfiguring; and China's economic ascent in the 21st century led to another industry chain restructuring of the region.

In the three waves of industry chain restructuring, the three nations' companies have shown strong resilience and competitiveness, and Japan and the ROK did not experience a growing wave of anti-free trade sentiment and nationalism witnessed in some developed countries. Enterprises of China, Japan and the ROK have their respective strengths, and the three countries' industry chains are deeply intertwined, creating more, instead of less, opportunities for cooperation in the new wave of restructuring.

Another misperception is that Chinese "overcapacity" in green industries has intensified economic competition in the region. In fact, China doesn't have an overcapacity problem, but rather, an undercapacity problem, because from the global perspective, China's green products are far from enough to meet the vast demand of the international market, especially the Global South countries.

The "Trilateral+X" cooperation model proposed in the joint declaration is a major innovation. In the face of the rapid advancements of new technologies, the Middle East and Latin America have pressing needs for industrial upgrading, and therefore show strong interest in strengthening economic cooperation with East Asian countries.

Recently, the President of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited China to attend the 10th ministerial conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum. Before arriving in Beijing, the UAE leader paid a visit to the ROK where the two countries signed a comprehensive economic partnership agreement.

China, Japan and the ROK all champion free trade and are committed to maintaining stable supply and industry chains, which are in the common interests of Global South countries.

That competition, instead of cooperation, is the main theme in Northeast Asia' political landscape is palpably false. Some argued that the joint declaration barely touched on security issues, and as the US, Japan and the ROK have enhanced their military alliance, there is little room for security cooperation among China, Japan and the ROK.

However, Northeast Asia has been home to an economic boom for more than 30 years. There has been two pillars for the decades-long peace and prosperity in East Asia. The first is that regional countries have been focusing on developing their economy, thus creating the need for a peaceful external environment; and the second is regional countries' commitment to the security philosophy that seeks to manage differences through cooperation.

At the core of Northeast Asia's security problem is the absence of a balanced and functional peacekeeping mechanism. Resorting to military deterrence will only feed into a vicious circle of escalating tensions. The successful experiences of the Six-Party Talks prove that a multilateral security framework can be established through diplomatic efforts should all parties respect each other's security interests. China-Japan-ROK cooperation does not target any other country, instead, it is laying the foundation for wider multilateral cooperation in the region.

As for China-Japan-ROK cooperation, experience shows that Northeast Asian regionalism tends to take one step forward, and then take one or even two steps back. The progress in regionalism should be viewed in an objective manner, and its potential should not be underestimated.

China, Japan and the ROK should foster confidence in regional collaboration, which will get a boost through closer interactions among the three nations.

The author is an associate professor of international relations at Niigata University in Japan and a nonresident senior fellow at the Center on Contemporary China and the World at the University of Hong Kong. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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