Chinese, South Korean and Japanese leaders held a trilateral meeting in Beijing Oct. 10 to discuss potential areas for cooperation between the three East Asian giants. While the three did achieve something concrete on one issue — economics — the refusal to cede any ground on what each perceives as a core national interest and a general distrust of the other parties prevented any other tangible accomplishments.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak completed a second trilateral meeting aimed at furthering cooperation between the countries on Oct. 10 in Beijing. While a number of high-profile issues were discussed, including the North Korean nuclear program, free trade, climate change and territorial disputes, the wide gulf between the countries' positions on these issues, and in particular the regional rivalry emerging between Japan and China, indicates just how difficult any move toward greater cooperation will be. A main reason for calling these trilateral meetings — which occur outside of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan and South Korea (ASEAN+3) framework — was that China, Japan and South Korea felt they could help drive the world recovery for the economic downturn, (the first meeting was held in December 2008). After all, together the three countries account for 75 percent of total gross domestic product (GDP) and trade volume in East Asia and 17 percent of world GDP. This current summit, however, highlighted the divergence of interests between the three countries, regardless of the joint cooperation communiques and proposals trumpeted by each party. One of the critical issues has been the North Korean nuclear program. While the three leaders agreed to seek early resumption of the six-party nuclear talks, Beijing showed particular interest in prodding North Korea to go back to both multilateral and bilateral talks, so that Beijing can act as a mediator. Seoul, fearing that it may be excluded from bilateral talks between North Korea and China or the United States, is actively seeking support from Tokyo on its "grand bargain" proposal — a one-step plan calling on North Korea to give up its entire nuclear program in return for a large aid package, which was proposed by Lee Myung Bak several months ago. While Hatoyama, appearing to support Lee's idea, stressed that the proposal should include Japan's request to resolve North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. Though all players have a clear picture that the single-step proposal will hardly serve as a real solution, they are using it as a bargaining chip with each other. Surprisingly, the previously heavily discussed East Asian Community was barely touched on during this summit. The concept of the East Asian Community, loosely modeled on the European Union, was revived by the new Japanese government in September, with Prime Minister Hatoyama including India, Australia and New Zealand in the prospective group. China, Japan and South Korea see themselves as the logical core for any East Asian community, given their economic heft. Such a community would include these three plus the 10 ASEAN nations, and, if Japan has its way, Australia, India and New Zealand. The expansion to the latter three, however, is seen by Beijing as an attempt to dilute China's voice in an East Asian Community. Due to this fact, it is unsurprising that little progress was made on forming such a body. Moreover, the summit highlighted the simmering competition between Japan and China. On the issue of climate change, Hatoyama called on Wen to make an international commitment. Though the details have not yet been reported, it is a fairly bold move and reveals Tokyo's ambitions to retake the leading role on climate change. China, the largest developing country, has recently made a great deal of its intentions to cut carbon emissions, though much more quietly indicated it will only make the cuts if the West pays for the technologies that would make the cuts possible — an enormous cost. Hatoyama essentially called on the Chinese to make good on their public promises to reduce emissions. In addition, both sides touched the long-standing territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the issue of food safety, but core obstacle remained unchanged, with neither side yielding much ground on those issues. One accomplishment the leaders can point to lies on the economic front. The three leaders agreed to maintain their stimulus plans, rather than halt them quickly, which is in keeping with the decision by the G-20 and European countries to not retreat on emergency economic policies too soon. They also agreed to reach a tripartite free trade agreement in 2010. Lee and Wen signed an agreement on economic cooperation that calls for doubling their annual bilateral trade to $300 billion by 2015. While political disputes are likely to continue, we expect an effort on free trade at the bureaucratic level to dominate the ongoing discussion. In other words, they can agree on basic economic issues right now, as these serve all three, but on political, security and territorial issues, they remain far apart. Clearly, to achieve real regional cooperation between the three countries, a number of obstacles remain to be cleared, but a lack of mutual trust and the reluctance to cede any ground on their own interests will continue to prevent any meaningful cooperation accord from being struck.