Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Seoul

2-001On March 21-22, Seoul hosted the meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of China, Japan and South Korea, that had been prepared over a long period of time and with great difficulty, and its progress was closely watched by other countries of Northeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

As this was the first meeting between officials in three years, it was worth the attention as it essentially determines the nature of the developing situation in the volatile region of Northeast Asia.

To foreign observers, the criterion of success of this meeting is the ability to set a specific date for a summit of China, Japan and South-Korea leaders during this meeting.

In this regard, they declared in a joint ministerial statement that they intend to work toward a three-way summit “at the earliest convenient time, providing both optimists and pessimists with ample opportunities to interpret the effectiveness of the work done in Seoul.

It clearly resembles the joint statements of the participating countries of the Trans-Pacific Partnership whose annual meetings during the recent five years have been concluded with the same “rubbery” wording every year.

The uncertain nature of the outcome of the meeting in Seoul is in keeping with the highly ambiguous political background that was shaped by a number of previous events and statements of top political leaders in the region.

At the heart of the conflict, not conducive for creating a favorable environment for the trilateral meeting, is the newest Sino-Japanese altercation on the topic of ownership of Senkaku/Diaoyu. Two events led to this conflict:

The first was the discovery on December 30, 2014 of a Chinese website in three languages (Chinese, Japanese and English) in which the whole issue of the “Diaoyu Islands” is explained. This led to a protest statement from the Japanese Foreign Ministry which was rejected by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

The second event (visibly resulting from the first one) was the “archive discovery” by the Japanese Foreign Ministry of a 1969 Chinese atlas in which all of the islands, including the main one, are referred to by their Japanese names.

Japanese media responded to this saying that the claim by China on the islands was only initiated at the end of the 70s because of its “mercantile” nature. Allegedly Beijing then began to seriously evaluate the 1968 UN report on the possible huge hydrocarbon reserves at the bottom of the East China Sea that is close to the Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu by the Chinese.

The Japanese historical find was followed by expected negative reaction from China where it was assumed that this atlas might have been created during the Japanese occupation of the part of Chinese territory.

Weakly counterbalancing these negative events was the signing of a Japan-China agreement on “continuing cooperation” in the area of minimizing the damages of natural disasters.

An important indicator of further development of bilateral relations will be Japan’s reaction to signing of an act on October 24, 2014 in Beijing, establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) with an initial registered capital of $50 billion, which, according to experts, will mostly come from China.

So far the AIIB is rather inferior to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank that are controlled by the USA, EU and Japan. But here, it is important to note the trend since after the June 2014 decision by the BRICS countries to create the New Development Bank, the AIIB will be the second largest project in the banking sector which will essentially be implemented under the auspices of China.

There are more than 30 countries on the list that have officially announced its involvement with the AIIB including, for example: India, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, Qatar, Laos, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan. In March of this year all the leading European countries such as France, Germany, Italy, the UK announced joining the project.

The latter seems particularly noteworthy since the leader of the western world, the USA, as well as their closest regional allies – Japan, Australia and South Korea were conspicuously missing from the applicants list. Australia, however, might follow the UK example and the Republic of Korea is “considering the possibility of joining” the AIIB.

As for the key American ally, Japan, there are elements of “weakness” in the Japanese position on this issue (once again and in the wake of the “lack of firmness” in the matter of supporting anti-Russian sanctions).

Therefore the statement of the Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso on the AIIB on March 20 is noteworthy (he served as Prime Minister in 2008-2009), when he said, that “there is a possibility of…discussing how it is going to operate, once some conditions are met as required by Japan, if joining the AIIB”.

However, another key Minister (of Economic Affairs) Akira Amari said during separate press conference that Japan will work “with the USA” on the AIIB matter. It does not seem random that Aso stipulated that he is judging the question of joining the bank in terms of “diplomacy and economy”.

He thereby circumvented policy and safety factors which are starting to have a defining influence on the relations between leading Northeast Asian countries and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

The opposite direction of political and economic vectors on the development of relations between the leading players in the Asia Pacific region is what is now often called the “Asian paradox”.

In fact no such special “Asian paradox” exists. As there was no one in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century on the eve of the First World War. It’s just that the history did not end there and the “invisible hand of the economy market that will solve all other problems” turned out to be just another piece of speculative fiction.

In the year that marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the most relevant issue in relations between Japan, China and South Korea remains the official evaluation by the Japanese government of the role of the country during this period of recent human history. Speaking at a press conference on March 15, 2015, the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang said that “At such a critical moment this year, there is both a test and an opportunity for China-Japan relations.

In a sufficiently accurate statement the Chinese Prime Minister made it clear that the intention of this test is to evaluate the behavior of “Japanese militarists” in Asia who brought “tremendous suffering” not only to other nations but to their own people as well. According to Li Keqiang, if the Japanese Prime Minister passes the test satisfactorily (from Chinese viewpoint) this summer it will give a new impetus to the development of bilateral relations, including in the business sector.

Thus a week prior to the trilateral meeting in Seoul at ministerial level the top leaders of China formulated some conditions for the resuscitation of political relations with Japan that may be accepted or rejected indirectly in the next few months.

That predetermined vague nature of the joint statement of the trilateral meeting in Seoul. Further development of relations in “China-Japan-South Korea” triangle will be significantly determined by the words that the Japanese Prime-Minister Shinzo Abe will pronounce at the upcoming events in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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