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Sep 19, 2016 | 09:15 GMT

8 mins read

East Asia's Leaders Search for Common Ground

East Asia's Leaders Search for Common Ground
(South Korean Blue House/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • China, Japan and South Korea will likely hold a summit in Tokyo in late November or early December.
  • The meeting will produce little in the way of concrete progress on key regional issues, including security on the Korean Peninsula or a trilateral free trade agreement.
  • However, the re-establishment of formal communications channels among the three countries is important in itself.
  • Conflicting geopolitical imperatives will limit cooperation among Asia-Pacific's three biggest powers, even as powerful incentives push them to work together.

After a spate of preparatory meetings in recent weeks, China, Japan and South Korea appear increasingly likely to hold a leaders' summit in Tokyo toward the end of the year. If convened, the summit would be the second of its kind since trilateral talks resumed in late 2015. (Territorial disputes in the East China Sea prompted China and Japan to suspend the summit in 2012.)

The three countries are unlikely to make much headway on the region's most important issues during the summit, but then again, that is not necessarily its primary purpose. Rather, the meeting's significance — at least for now — lies in the fact that it exists at all. What matters most to all three states, albeit for different reasons, is that they have a stable, institutionalized mechanism in place to communicate and cooperate with one another, regardless of how limited it might be in practice.

Dusting off a Shelved Idea

The notion of a trilateral leaders' summit for East Asia's largest powers has been around for more than a decade. Seoul first proposed the idea in 2004 as an addendum to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN's) dialogue with China, Japan and South Korea, known as the ASEAN+3 talks. Four years later, the three countries held their first leaders' summit, followed by another each year after until 2012. But worsening relations between China and Japan eventually brought higher-level trilateral talks to an end. They did not reopen until 2015, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attended a conference in Seoul. The meeting closed with little more than a mutual pledge to continue talking, but so far all sides have made good on that promise. Over the past month, there has been a flurry of meetings, including a trilateral foreign ministers' summit on Aug. 24, several bilateral ministerial meetings and trilateral leaders' talks on the sidelines of major regional forums.

With a 2016 leaders' summit now in the works, questions have been raised about which issues the meeting will focus on and whether its participants will make substantive strides toward resolving them. But the answers to those questions can be found only by first considering the state of Asia-Pacific affairs and the underlying geopolitical constraints that both encourage and restrict cooperation among China, Japan and South Korea.

Some Interests Conflict . . .

This year's summit comes as many of East Asia's deeply rooted divides are rapidly rising to the surface. Over the past five years, China's economic boom — and Beijing's success in translating that heft into military and political might — has pushed Japan to rebuild its own economic and military strength. At the same time, the United States and its Southeast Asian partners have more overtly sought to constrain China on every front, particularly in the South China Sea. South Korea, meanwhile, has struggled to balance its close economic ties with China and its need to protect its autonomy from Beijing, all while juggling a historically fraught relationship with Japan and a deep reliance on the U.S.-led security framework in the region — of which an increasingly active Japanese military is a key part.

Amid these simmering tensions, several recent developments have reopened the region's old wounds. A July ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, for example, has exacerbated China's long-standing territorial dispute with the Philippines, while Japan's vow to supply Vietnam and the Philippines with patrol ships and surveillance aircraft has aggravated frictions in the South China Sea. The United States, moreover, has yet to settle its internal debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and North Korea has continued with its nuclear weapons tests. These events have renewed the abiding disagreements among East Asia's heavyweights, casting doubt on whether true cooperation among them is even possible, let alone sustainable.

Real limits to collaboration among the region's leading powers certainly exist. No matter how often or clearly they communicate with each other, Beijing and Tokyo will continue to be adversaries as long as China's power continues to grow. Japan still views a stronger China as a threat, and the two remain suspicious of each other's intentions. Barring a catastrophe in China or a fundamental re-envisioning of national interests in Japan, none of those things are liable to change in the coming years. Instead, tension will probably rise as Japan boosts its own regional standing, which — to the extent that it succeeds — will deepen mistrust between Tokyo and Seoul as well. South Korea has long viewed Japan as one of the greatest threats to its security because of Japan's power, proximity and history of military incursions into the Korean Peninsula. Though their shared concern over China's rise has helped them to temporarily lay aside their differences, it likely is not enough to erase Seoul's deep-seated misgivings about Tokyo's ambitions.

. . . While Others Align

Yet China, Japan and South Korea have powerful incentives to work with one another as much as they can. Beijing recognizes that to ensure its lasting security and fulfill its regional (and global) goals, it cannot allow the emergence of an effective coalition that can contain it. Formal channels of communication and the cooperation they bring — whether related to economics or security — will not by themselves prevent such a bloc from forming. They will, however, help to pacify China's neighbors, especially by assuaging their fears as to Beijing's broader aims. Closer ties could also yield the benefits of freer trade and reduce the risk of unplanned and unwanted conflict by encouraging collaboration on matters of regional security.

Better coordination among the three would benefit Japan in many ways as well. The Japanese government is desperately trying to revive the country's economy by breathing new life into its advanced manufacturing and electronics industries and deepening its regional trade ties. Protecting the movement of goods and investment in East Asia from being disrupted by political spats is paramount. At the same time, the prospect of a nuclear North Korea poses a serious threat to Japan. Tokyo hopes stronger ties with South Korea and China (the only country that still has influence over Pyongyang) will help to mitigate it. Japan is also hedging its bets: The United States' long-term position and interests in the region are still murky, and maintaining ties with Beijing and Seoul will give Tokyo room to maneuver as Washington's role in the Asia-Pacific evolves. Should the U.S. Congress refuse to ratify the TPP in the months ahead, Japan will likely step up these efforts even more.

Of the three powers, South Korea's position is perhaps the most precarious, meaning it also has the most to gain from stable trilateral ties. Economically, South Korea is far more dependent than its larger peers on regional trade, and it would greatly benefit from fewer trade barriers. Seoul likewise has every reason to seek open and transparent communication with China and Japan on North Korea's behavior, intentions and capabilities. Considering that trilateral discussions would help to bridge the gap between China and Japan as well, South Korea could use it to position itself as a lynchpin in communications among the three, thus preserving its autonomy from its bigger counterparts.

These diverging and converging needs explain why the trilateral leaders' summit — and communication among China, Japan and South Korea more broadly — has reappeared and is likely here to stay. But they also explain why the conference is unlikely to accomplish much this year, or in the near future. China's interests compel it to safeguard and even increase trade and security ties with its neighbors, but at the same time they ensure that cooperation will be riddled with tension and only moderately effective at best. The same is largely true of Japan and South Korea. Nevertheless, as China expands its maritime presence, North Korea improves its nuclear capabilities, and the U.S. and Japanese militaries increase their security patrols in the South and East China seas, better communication between East Asia's biggest powers could prove a useful tool for keeping conflict at bay.

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