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Shi Yongming
Special> Focus on Korean Peninsula> Beijing Review Exclusive> Opinion> Shi Yongming
UPDATED: October 26, 2009 NO. 43 OCTOBER 29, 2009
A Big Step Forward
China, Japan and South Korea promise a considerable leap in trilateral cooperation at their second summit


HANDS TOGETHER: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (center), South Korean President Lee Myung Bak (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama pose for a photo before their second trilateral summit in Beijing on October 10 (HUANG JINGWEN) 

On October 10, China, Japan and South Korea held their second trilateral summit in Beijing. The summit marked the 10th anniversary of cooperation between the three East Asian nations. It has drawn international attention, too, as the world waits to see how the three powers can enter a new stage—one including factors like the global financial crisis, changes of political fortunes in Japan and China's growing economic might.

There can be no doubt that their trilateral cooperation will have a significant impact not just on the region but on the political and economic patterns in the world at large.

Toward a community

This summit provided a review of past trilateral cooperation, with an eye to the future. In doing so, leaders issued a joint statement underscoring the significance of trilateral cooperation from a strategic perspective.

For the first time, the three countries inserted the long-term goal of developing an "East Asia community" into a formal document. This is no simple task. Indeed, to do so, numerous problems must first be resolved. But the growing sense of community, as evidenced by the move, is bound to give a strong impetus to their future cooperation.

The history of East Asia after the Cold War was a process in which a separated region moved toward reconciliation and rapid economic development. Nonetheless, its political and economic development did not advance side by side.

The political relations between the three nations were often left uncertain, despite greater economic integration. Consequently, this proved a failed model for achieving lasting regional political stability and economic prosperity.

It is against this backdrop that talks among China, Japan and South Korea have moved forward in the past decade.

At this year's summit, the three countries' sense of mutual development and prosperity was crystallized by their joint statement in which they vowed to "build solid strategic mutual trust," "regard one another as partners of win-win cooperation" and "support one another's peaceful development and regard it as an opportunity."

The acceleration of economic cooperation, of course, is a principal guiding factor, too. At the summit, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, for one, called for efforts to speed up the joint study on establishing a free trade area for China, Japan and South Korea and reach a "balanced, practical and win-win" investment agreement as soon as possible.

Japan and South Korea offered vigorous responses. Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said the investment agreement would pave the way for a future free trade agreement.

In the so-called "flying geese" pattern of the post-Cold War East Asian region, Japan, South Korea and China were in the head, middle and tail respectively—a categorization of each of the three countries in terms of political and economic power.

Significantly, economic development in recent decades has dramatically reduced the gap between the three. This has created favorable conditions with which to explore a free trade area. Accounting for some 20 percent of the total world economy—and 70 percent of East Asia's—the three have already impacted numerous aspects of the patterns of the global economy.

Meanwhile, China, Japan and South Korea have made progress in institutionalizing their cooperation. At the summit, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak suggested setting up a tripartite cooperation secretariat. The three countries agreed to initiate the process via the establishment of an online secretariat—thereby utilizing smart technology to accelerate institutional development.

Two sides, one coin

One notable backdrop of the latest summit was the change of political power in Tokyo. In August, Japan's long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party suffered a sweeping defeat at the hands of the Democratic Party. The upset reflected the wish of Japanese people to move in a different direction.

On taking power, Hatoyama's most notable change was to distance Tokyo from the United States and integrate further into Asia.

This emphasis is at great odds with the Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled for more than half a century. Rather, the Liberal Democratic Party focused on Asia in terms of foreign affairs and national security strategy with an emphasis on the Japan-U.S. alliance. This approach allowed for a policy that varied among Asian countries by emphasizing an internationally value-oriented diplomacy instead of a regional, strategic one.

Hatoyama, on the other hand, has announced his full intention to forge friendly relations with regional countries with different value systems. This, of course, will encompass great sensitivities toward historical issues of common concern to Japan's Asian neighbors.

One notable example is Hatoyama's pronouncement that neither he—nor anyone in his cabinet—will visit the Yasukuni Shrine. This is a sharp departure from other prominent Japanese politicians who have made pilgrimages to the site commemorating Japan's participation in World War II—visits that sparked furor across East Asia.

The Japanese Government's new adjustments in its diplomatic strategy will undoubtedly bring opportunities for the three countries and the whole of East Asia.

In fact, challenges coexist with opportunities in relations among China, Japan and South Korea. Cultural differences, economic gaps, historical problems, territorial disputes and uncertainties over future strategies all hinder potential growth.

First, even the ways with which to establish a regional community have left their leaders at odds.

Inside Japan voices of objection to Hatoyama's diplomatic strategy are already gaining momentum. These disputes not only demonstrate differing opinions, but also lay bare the huge variations across the Asian region. Thus conquering these differences to build a stable sense of community in the region will pose a big challenge.

The next test will come from the United States. Washington has always regarded East Asia as its backyard, while objecting threats of exclusion by members of its community. Hatoyama's strategy of shifting from the United States and integrating into Asia will very likely engender severe objections from the Obama administration.

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