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The China-Japan-South Korea trilateral meetings have traditionally been held with tables arranged in a triangle, like this one from 2015 in Seoul. (Photo by Masaru Shioyama)
International relations

North Korea crisis could galvanize trilateral cooperation

Grouping of Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul may find key regional role at last

TAKEHIRO MASUTOMO, Contributing writer | China

SEOUL -- The year is almost certain to come to a close without the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea sitting down for a long-awaited trilateral meeting. This will make 2017 the second year in a row without a three-way summit, though preparations are being made for a January meetup.

It has been another difficult year for the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, just like many of the years since its inauguration in 2011.

The South Korean senior diplomat who heads the body, however, remains passionate about its future and believes it can contribute to dealing with the North Korean crisis. "The establishment of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat opened a new chapter in the history of Northeast Asia," said Lee Jong-heon, the organization's secretary-general.

Since its creation, the secretariat has had little to do. Hampered first by tensions between China and Japan over the East China Sea, later by tensions between Japan and South Korea over issues concerning wartime "comfort women," and more recently between China and South Korea over the deployment of a missile defense system, the three countries have failed to ignite any enthusiasm for real cooperation.

But concerns over North Korea could help galvanize the regional partnership. If and when a true crisis breaks out, China, Japan and South Korea would inevitably need to discuss how to provide humanitarian assistance and how to contribute financially. In the ultimate scenario of regime change or collapse, broader dialogue would be required to draw up a grand blueprint for the country.

"An emergency in North Korea would lead to humanitarian crisis," said Shigeo Iwatani, the secretariat's former secretary-general. "The three countries would need to discuss whether or not to accept refugees, as well as prepare financial assistance." As the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea prepare to hold a trilateral summit in the coming weeks, North Korea is expected to be a central topic.

Lee Jong-heon, the Korean secretary general of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, is passionate about the future of the organization. (Photo by Takehiro Masutomo)

Lee, the incumbent secretary-general, agrees that dealing with the North Korean crisis will feature heavily in the upcoming talks. "It is very helpful to get to know each others' positions correctly. They will try to deepen and broaden existing cooperation in a practical way."

Bilateral exchanges

China, Japan and South Korea share a deep history of bilateral exchanges. But it was only in 1999, at the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Nations summit with the three other countries (ASEAN+3), that the idea of cooperation between the Northeast Asian nations surfaced. Proposed by then Japanese prime minister Keizo Obuchi, a breakfast meeting among the countries' political leaders took place in the aftermath of the catastrophic Asian financial crisis.

In the years after the launch of the trilateral exchanges, South Korea, under the regionally-engaged Roh Moo-hyun administration, accelerated the new cooperative mechanism. The three leaders independently held a summit meeting in 2008 and agreed to establish a permanent body in Seoul in 2010. In retrospect, these steps were timely. The two Asian giants, Japan and China, were on an equal footing, but the former's status as the world's second-largest economy was being replaced by the latter.

Into the seventh year of operations, the secretariat supports as many as 21 ministerial-level meetings and the number of staff has grown to over 30, while it has facilitated cooperation in environmental and education projects, among others.

Since 2012, however, worsened bilateral relations have hampered cooperation. Tensions over the East China Sea hit Sino-Japan relations, followed by further entanglements in Japan-Korea ties over thorny historical issues. This led to the cancellation of summit meetings in 2013 and 2014.

Although China does not oppose three-way cooperation, President Xi Jinping seemed reluctant to work with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. China repeatedly declined the invitation for trilateral talks, apparently due to soured bilateral relations. "China is the key player," Iwatani said.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaks at a business summit in Seoul, Nov. 1, 2015, the last time the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea convened a trilateral meeting. How China stands on North Korea will shape the tone of the upcoming leaders' meeting.   © Reuters

The latest trouble came after the escalation of the Sino-Korean spat over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD), a missile defense system whose deployment Beijing opposes. Japan, the grouping's next chair, was unable to convene a trilateral summit meeting last year. Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono recently reiterated his willingness to host trilateral talks very soon, a stance which South Korean President Moon Jae-in backed. Including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, leaders from the three countries may gather in Tokyo as early as this month, or January 2018.

Hoping for reassurance

In the upcoming summit meeting, Secretary-General Lee hopes for reassurance on the institutionalization of the summit talks. "Just like the case of the European Union, trilateral cooperation needs to have our own kind of constitution, so regardless of any kind of political ups-and-downs and unpredictability, the cooperation should be maintained."

In comparison with other regional organizations, the Northeast Asian trilateral is faced with a fundamental question. On one hand, ASEAN was created among similar-sized countries to prevent the spread of Communism, and later evolved into a unified shield against non-regional superpowers. On the other hand, the EU is a final product of the Franco-Germany axis founded on the deepest reflections following two world wars. "We are too different," said Iwatani. The three countries are uneven in terms of population, size and degree of economic development. In addition, based on his observation, Japan is more interested in balancing against China than cooperating with it.

A potential milestone for the trio is the long-awaited China-Japan-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Begun in 2013, the negotiations have been slow, although the China-South Korea FTA was signed and has already taken effect. Thanks to U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a rival trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has come under the spotlight, which has stimulated negotiations on the trilateral trade deal in recent months.

The budget for the trilateral secretariat, shouldered equally by the three governments, is another issue. China, a rising economic hub, and South Korea, the host country, are open to the idea of expanding the budget at a faster pace. In contrast, it is increasingly difficult for Japan to justify a budget increase, given the gloomy fiscal trajectory at home. South Korea is pushing for a trilateral cooperation fund, a more flexible and bottom-up approach to tap the potential of non-governmental players.

Other structural reforms may be necessary. The secretariat must appoint more middle managers and non-diplomat experts to energize low-profile projects. To authorize stronger leadership of the secretary-general, both extended terms of office and a competitive selection process might be preferred. In addition, the secretariat needs to enhance its level of public recognition.

A trilateral secretariat alumnus, Zhang Muhui, who has studied the organization extensively, remains optimistic. "The key to success is openness," he said, emphasizing that the three countries should keep the door open for countries like Mongolia and Russia to cooperate. "ASEAN went through several decades of development periods. China, Japan, and South Korea can also go forward step by step."

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