The Trilateral--and Bilateral--Summits

November 3, 2015 7:00 AM

Asia has a surfeit of diplomatic meetings for the amount of substance they produce. Yet in some cases, simply showing up can have value. That is certainly the case with respect to the China-Japan-Korea trilateral held over the weekend between Prime Minister Abe, President Park and Premier Li Keqiang and the Park-Abe bilateral on Monday.

Trilateral summits were an outgrowth of the ASEAN Plus Three process and were first proposed by South Korea in 2004. The first ad hoc meeting was held in 2008 before they were regularized through the 5th meeting in 2012. (China has always sent its premier; Wen Jiabao was the attendee of all of the summits through 2012, so there was no downgrade by sending Li Keqiang). Along the way, the three countries created a Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, housed in Seoul.

But the summits were interrupted by conflicts between Japan and both Korea and China over history and territorial disputes around the Senkakus respectively. The summit document stated clearly that trilateral relations were being “completely restored,” effectively acknowledging the rupture. The organization currently hosts 50 intergovernmental consultative mechanisms, including about 20 ministerial-level talks, and appears to be headed for more. Among the institutional ideas vetted at the summit was the creation of Trilateral Cooperation Fund (TCF) to finance joint projects.

Similar to the recent Joint Fact Sheet from the US-Korea summit, the Joint Statement has a laundry-list quality to it, with commitments on a range of functional issues, from nuclear safety and disaster response to science and technology, standards and customs cooperation and people-to-people exchanges. Probably the most significant outcome, however, would be to inject energy into the complex set of concentric circles focused on economic cooperation. The three countries have already concluded an investment agreement. But a push to complete a trilateral FTA would in turn energize the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations. Rooted in the ASEAN and its six Free Trade Partners--Australia, New Zealand, India and the “+ Three” of China, Korea and Japan--the RCEP is China’s answer to the TPP: an Asia-only agreement that conforms more closely to Chinese preferences than to those of the US.

On North Korea, we reproduce the dry language of the joint statement below. The statement reiterates long-standing Chinese declaratory policy on the importance of denuclearization and abiding by all multilateral commitments, including the 2005 Joint Statement. The summit also overlapped with a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for the annual defense ministers' meeting, so there was plenty of Six Party Talks talk in the air. The summit also endorsed President Park’s struggling Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI), which hosted its own intergovernmental meeting in October. In restrained language, the joint statement noted that the “Republic of Korea explained its initiative to create Northeast Asia Development Bank (NEADB)” and Japan and China “took note” of this initiative. But no one really believes a breakthrough is imminent on either front; everyone seems to be going through the motions.

For symbolic significance, the bilateral meeting between Park and Abe overshadowed the trilateral summit and is likely to be debated in South Korea for weeks. Bilateral relations got off to a very bad start from the outset of the Park presidency, with the Japanese representative to her inauguration--Minister of Finance Tarō Asō--reportedly lecturing Park on history as she quietly steamed. Japan has made persistent efforts to apologize on the comfort women issue. But the integrity of those statements—some quite eloquent (most notably in the Kono statement of 1993; see all statements here)—have been undermined during the Abe years by, legalistic carping, outright fabrications of denialists and indisicipline within the Abe administration and LDP. Under pressure from right-wing politicians to back away from the Kono statement’s acknowledgement of responsibility, the government opened a (largely pointless) “investigation” which pleased absolutely no one; Tessa Morris-Suzuki is our favorite both on the underlying facts (here) and the political machinations (here). A related issue is the problem of compensation, which Japan does not want to reopen, believing that the 1965 normalization of relations between the two countries settled all war-time claims.

Korean and Japanese diplomats have had no fewer than nine rounds of negotiations to resolve the issue during the Park administration, but little progress has been made. Abe did not issue the desired apology, but promised to resolve the issue by the end of the year. What is being sought exactly remains unclear. How do you manufacture sincerity? And from Japan’s point of view, is there a resolution to this issue that could be considered more or less final? Unfortunately, the answer to the first question is elusive, while the answer to the second one is clearly “no.” But at least they are talking, which is very much in the US interest.

From the Joint Statement on the Korean Peninsula

  1. We reaffirmed that maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula as well as in Northeast Asia is in our common interest. In this regard, we welcome that tensions in August on the Korean Peninsula were resolved by the agreement between the Republic of Korea and the DPRK. We hope that the agreement will lead to meaningful progress in inter-Korean relations. We reaffirmed our firm opposition to the development of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, and shared the view that international obligations and commitments under all relevant UN Security Council resolutions and the 19 September 2005 Joint Statement must be faithfully implemented. We oppose any action that may cause tension on the Korean Peninsula or violate relevant UN Security Council resolutions. We decided to continue our joint efforts to resume meaningful Six Party Talks at an early date to make substantial progress in denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.
  1. China and Japan expressed support for the efforts towards overcoming national division on the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner, and in this regard, highly appreciated the relevant initiatives aimed at promoting trust-building and enhancing exchanges and cooperation between the two sides of the Korean Peninsula.
  1. We shared the view that strengthening trilateral cooperation on non-proliferation is necessary for regional and international peace and security. To this end, we will establish a Trilateral Consultation on Non-proliferation. We will continue to work together to improve nuclear security, including the cooperation between our Centers of Excellence on nuclear security.

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