16 May 2018

Why is the China-Japan-Korea Trilateral Leaders’ Summit a Big Deal?

On 9 May, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met for the first time since 2015 in Tokyo. Of note are the facts that Mr Li is on his first visit to Japan since assuming the premiership in 2013, while Mr Moon is the first South Korean President to do so in almost seven years.

What remains under-appreciated as the world continues to be enamoured by the U.S.-North Korea rapprochement in recent weeks is the enormous significance of this landmark trilateral meeting. This summit among the trio of Northeast Asian powers is a big deal for three reasons.

The North Korean Common Threat

The elephant in the room, of course, is the common North Korean nuclear threat. At the summit, the three powers reached a common recognition toward the desired outcome of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, expressing staunch commitment to the end of resolving the security threat.

While they likely differ on the means to achieve this, the meeting signalled common ground and mutual understanding on achieving peace and stability in the historically volatile region. This adds weight to the international community's expectation that a satisfactory and lasting deal can be negotiated between the United States and North Korea when the leaders of the two countries meet.

Importantly, such a public pronouncement of common interests indicates that North Korea's immediate neighbours traditional allies or adversaries are fully committed toward the same objective.

In the midst of Pyongyang's shuttle diplomacy with Chinese officials including Kim Jong-un's second visit to China in as many months presumably to garner support from Beijing on concessions sought from Washington this unity of purpose among the three powers is all the more critical.

Warming Relations Between Traditional Geopolitical Rivals

The successful summit also suggests a gradual but steady rapprochement between Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul.

Just last year, Sino-South Korean relations were at an all-time nadir following Seoul's decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system that Beijing deemed antithetical to its national security interests. China's economic retaliation on South Korean firms only ended in November 2017 after Seoul promised not to consider additional THAAD or any other U.S. missile defense system deployment and not to join a trilateral alliance with Washington and Tokyo.

Relations between Japan and its two neighbours haven't been ideal either. Beijing and Seoul maintain long-standing hostility towards Tokyo over the perceived unwillingness to take responsibility and show remorse over its war atrocities. This includes, among others, the issues of comfort women, revisionism of Japanese textbooks that downplay Japan's role in World War II, and visits by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine honouring Japan's war dead whom China and Korea view as war criminals.

In addition, persistent territorial disputes continue to plague Sino-Japan and Japan-Korea ties. Tokyo contests the Dokdo/Takeshima islets with Seoul, and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands with Beijing. These historical and security issues remain key thorns in Tokyo's bilateral relationship with its two neighbours, being politically sensitive topics that easily stir up nationalistic sentiment.

Therefore, the warming of relations between the three powers signify a highly-anticipated diplomatic upswing that reduces the perpetual geopolitical tensions in Northeast Asia, while offering opportunities for them to collaborate economically for the benefit of their citizens. That the three states account for almost a quarter of the global economy and a fifth of international trade volume speaks to the massive potential of economic cooperation and exchange.

Maintenance of the Global Trade Order

The trilateral summit also comes in the wake of protectionist trade measures imposed by the United States. All three states have bore the brunt of this sentiment emanating from Washington since the Trump administration came into office.

On his first day in office, President Trump signed an executive order withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership after which Tokyo took over negotiations and secured agreement on the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership among the remaining 11 states. The United States then demanded a renegotiation of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which the two countries reached an agreement in principle in March 2018. Most recently, the President threatened a trade war with Beijing, demanding a US$200 billion reduction of the U.S.-China trade imbalance by June 2020.

The three Northeast Asian states have found themselves taking up the bastion of free trade, being at the receiving end of seemingly unreasonable American trade demands and policies. In particular, China has assumed the mantle of being the great power championing free trade, expressed through President Xi Jinping's pro-trade speeches at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017 and at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference in April 2018.

Viewed through this lens, the proclamation during the trilateral summit to continue upholding free trade and opposing protectionism, while expediting work on the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal, holds special significance. The three powers reiterate their commitment and determination to maintain the open global trade order that has worked so successfully in enhancing domestic economic development and eradicating poverty despite the anti-trade rhetoric from the United States.

Geopolitical Implications in the Asia-Pacific

While the trilateral summit should rightly be viewed with cautious optimism around Asia, a major geopolitical implication of this rapprochement is the receding American influence in the Asia-Pacific.

Despite the U.S. remaining as the pre-eminent military power in the region, it is losing ground in the economic and diplomatic spheres as its close allies Japan and South Korea warm up to China. Washington has not helped itself, with its aggressive anti-trade posture and the lack of a coherent, principled and detailed strategy toward Asia that extends beyond crisis management of the North Korea nuclear threat. The vague nature of Trump's Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy also does not exude confidence nor reassurance that there is a robust plan for U.S. engagement of Asian states.

This trilateral summit highlights how even long-time rivals can band together in pursuit of common security and trade interests despite historical animosity, underscoring the geopolitical sagacity that there are no permanent friends or enemies only permanent national interests.

Therefore, further alienation of America's Asian allies and partners through bellicose rhetoric and perceived bullying tactics will drive states into Beijing's rapidly-expanding sphere of influence, as Washington continues to lose credibility and diplomatic soft power in its regional engagements.

If left to its own devices, American influence and pre-eminence in the Asia-Pacific will erode and diminish over time. Given the current landscape, it appears Beijing is gaining the upper hand over Washington in winning the hearts and minds of policy-makers in Asian capitals.

Jansen Tham is a 2nd year Masters in Public Policy (MPP) student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.