China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summits aim at East Asian FTA

Source:Global Times Published: 2016/7/11 22:23:27

Editor's Note:

The revived China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit last November announced the decision that Japan will host this year's trilateral meeting. Given the vicissitudes in bilateral relations in the region, will the meeting be held as planned? How can the fragile cooperation among the three countries be strengthened? In 2011, the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS) was established to further institutionalize the meeting and facilitate cooperation. Global Times (GT) reporter Yu Jincui talked to Yang Houlan (Yang), secretary-general of the Seoul-based TCS over these issues during the third Trilateral Journalist Exchange Program held by the TCS in early July.

Yang Houlan Photo: Yu Jincui/GT

GT: When will the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit be held this year? How are the preparations going?

Yang: The trilateral summit is the highest-level meeting within the framework of trilateral cooperation and it's the most important mechanism that pushes trilateral cooperation forward. The summit was resumed in Seoul last November after a three-and-half-year hiatus caused by heightened bilateral disputes. I believe it will return to its normal track, as what was supposed to be an annual summit.

Japan will host the seventh trilateral summit this year. So far, the three countries have held consultation conferences. All the three sides have taken a positive attitude toward the convening of the trilateral foreign ministers' meeting and the trilateral summit, but the exact time hasn't been specified yet.

The foreign ministries from all three countries are maintaining communications and I believe they will announce the arrangement of this year's summit when the time is ripe.

Under the current situation, the three sides should make concerted efforts to create a favorable political atmosphere for holding the trilateral summit at an early date.

GT: What's the status quo of the trilateral cooperation?

Yang: Trilateral cooperation is just at its initial stage. The economic interdependence among China, Japan and South Korea is much smaller than that within the EU or the North America Free Trade Area.

This demonstrates the huge potential for the three countries to deepen cooperation.

Given geographic proximity, cultural similarity, and economic complementarity, the three are naturally in an advantageous position to promote cooperation. 

The three countries have established a total of over 60 multi-level intergovernmental cooperation mechanisms since 1999, including around 20 ministerial-level talks. The challenge hindering trilateral cooperation is a lack of mutual political and security trust.

The cooperation in politics and security lags behind economic cooperation and people-to-people exchanges. China, Japan and South Korea are permanent neighbors. It's normal for them to have conflicts. Some of the conflicts could be resolved through reinforcing cooperation while others require long-term efforts by all the three sides to seek a solution.

GT: Japan is considered somewhat detached from the trilateral cooperation. What's your take?

Yang: Setting aside political disputes, Japan has positively engaged in trilateral cooperation, especially in economic cooperation and people-to-people exchange. Enhancing trilateral cooperation is in the interests of all the three countries.

As a matter of fact, Japan was the first country to come up with the idea of fostering trilateral cooperation. It raised many propositions in regard to enhancing cooperation among Japan, China and South Korea.

Some people now think Japan is decreasing its input in promoting trilateral cooperation. But actually, Japan is dwarfed by China and South Korea, who are ratcheting up their input.

Tokyo aimed at reinforcing its influence in regional cooperation when it proposed starting trilateral cooperation. However, the result is that China and South Korea have upped their influence since the founding of the trilateral cooperation mechanism.

Japan didn't expect that its discourse power in the region would decline with the improving economic and political strength of both China and South Korea.

GT: How do you view the influence of external factors, such as the US, on trilateral cooperation?

Yang: China-Japan-South Korea cooperation is an important part of East Asian cooperation as well as Asia-Pacific cooperation. That countries including China, Japan, South Korea and the US can enhance cooperation with each other is of critical value to establishing an Asia-Pacific free trade area (FTA) at an early date.

We welcome other countries, including the US, to play a constructive role in East Asian cooperation and we are willing to share development experiences with them.

GT: The 10th round of China-Japan-South Korea FTA negotiations was concluded in Seoul recently. It shows there are still great divergences among the three parties. Compared with the China-Japan-South Korea FTA, Japan seems to be more interested in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). How do you view this?

Yang: The just concluded negotiations have reached a consensus over the scope and range of the FTA, which symbolizes a big stride forward. Generally speaking, the trilateral FTA negotiations have achieved positive results over the past three years. It's true that the negotiations have been confronted by myriad problems and divergences. This reflects the state of the three countries' highly integrated economies, with competition and cooperation running parallel to each other.

We should take a calm and objective view of the difficulties facing the FTA negotiations. The signing of a multilateral FTA is usually based on bilateral FTAs. The predicament the China-Japan-South Korea FTA negotiations are facing is that China and South Korea only reached an FTA last year and there are no FTAs between China and Japan, as well as Japan and South Korea. Therefore, the negotiations are more difficult.

In addition, from the perspective of China, although it has reached FTAs with many regions and countries, the negotiations with South Korea and Japan are the first time that China has simultaneously negotiated with two developed economies, which adds difficulties.

The China-Japan-South Korea deal will have far-reaching significance once it's completed. It will exert influences on the China-US FTA negotiations and China-EU FTA negotiations.

If China wants to transform from a trader of quantity to a trader of quality, it must seal the deals of the FTA with its two neighbors.

In regard to the TPP, we hope different mechanisms can mutually coordinate and support each other and achieve a win-win situation. That is the best choice.

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