East Asian tensions need patient hand

By Li Kaisheng Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/1 18:48:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

After foreign ministers from China, Japan and South Korea met in Tokyo last week, whether and when summit talks among the three countries will be held has not been confirmed. Meetings by foreign ministers, especially top leaders, are usually regarded by many as a weather vane of the trilateral relationship.

This simple thinking used to observe the regional situation should be changed. Perplexed by sovereignty divergences, maritime demarcation disputes, the Korean Peninsula's division, the US rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific, North Korea's nuclear tests and Japan's constitutional shift, Northeast Asia has a complicated geopolitical landscape and faces tough challenges in political security. Summit talks among the three countries are not enough to handle the complicated regional situation, and are not an indication of the future direction of the trilateral relationship.

Although the tensions between China and South Korea, triggered by the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, have been eased following the foreign minister meetings, a solution satisfactory to all parties has not been found.

Foreign ministers from China and Japan exchanged their stances, but have not reached a consensus on the issues of the South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands. No joint document was released after the conference.

The top-level exchanges among China, Japan and South Korea are still faltering after being suspended for three years. This is due to the deep-rooted geopolitical structure in the region and the specific situation at the current stage.

Japan attempts to strike a balance against China and meanwhile endeavors to amend its constitution. The nation is exerting more influences on Northeast Asia's future. After the award of the South China Sea arbitration was announced, Japan, although outside the region, frequently hyped the arbitration, and attempts to draw the Philippines over to its side and helps Manila to strengthen its coastal defense. China has taken countermeasures as well, sending more warships to waters around the Diaoyu Islands to pressure Japan.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula is also deteriorating. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is more rash and persistent in developing nuclear weapons than his predecessor, and the international sanctions could hardly shake his determination to turn Pyongyang into a nuclear state.

As a result, Kim's South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye, despite attempting to enhance mutual trust between the two Koreas, has increasingly been disappointed and thus shifted her North Korea policy from promoting the Korean Peninsula's denuclearization to the THAAD deployment. The bond between China and South Korea, sustained by their joint appeals for denuclearization, is weakening. The Beijing-Seoul relationship would be challenged even if the THAAD system wasn't set to be deployed.

These issues are unlikely to be addressed any time soon. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may stay in office for a long time, and the China-Japan relationship is unlikely to see major breakthroughs during Abe's term. Regarding South Korea, although Park has only a year and a half in office, it is unlikely for her successor to be able to alter the peninsula's situation quickly given the overwhelming number of conservative politicians in Seoul and the nuclear threats from Pyongyang.

The trilateral relationship among China, Japan and South Korea is highly likely to be long perplexed by low-intensity tensions, and the three countries have to make necessary adjustments to keep conflicts under control instead of being too ambitious about cooperation. It is a real challenge for the three neighbors to prevent disputes from escalating into major conflicts.

Therefore, high-level exchanges among the three nations should be encouraged. Although the meetings do not necessarily mean a perfect trilateral relationship, representatives can clarify the bottom line and diplomatic goals of their countries so as to avoid misunderstandings.

It would be better if the three countries could build more strategic trust, negotiate before taking major actions, reach strategic consensus, step up the negotiations over the free trade zone, establish different levels of negotiation mechanisms and cut losses in face of emergencies.

The author is a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, and a visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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