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Foreign Policy

Cooperation in North Asia and the U.S. Factor

Jun 05, 2024
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

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On May 27, the leaders of China, Japan and the Republic of Korea held a summit in Seoul, South Korea, marking the resumption of trilateral cooperation that had been stalled since the end of 2019. Some analyses suggest that this resumption is the result of China’s intent to improve relations with Japan and the ROK to weaken the U.S.-led trilateral cooperation’s “encirclement” of China. In other words, these analyses posit that Sino-U.S. relations are the decisive driving force behind the development of China-Japan-ROK trilateral relations. 

This is a significant misinterpretation of trilateral cooperation by China, Japan and the ROK. Indeed, last year’s U.S.-Japan-ROK summit at Camp David clearly targeted China, and the United States is undoubtedly an important external factor in Northeast Asia. However, the internal dynamics within China, Japan and the ROK are the fundamental reasons for the emergence and development of trilateral cooperation.

First, their cooperation originated from the ASEAN framework. It began with the three Northeast Asia countries recognizing and learning from the successful ideas and experiences of Southeast Asia’s regional integration.

Before the end of the Cold War, the only well-organized regional group in Asia was ASEAN, as there were no cooperation mechanisms in the northeast at the time. ASEAN, which emerged at the height of the Cold War in 1967, achieved peace and development in the Southeast Asian region through a regional integration process based on dialogue and cooperation.

After the Cold War, China, Japan and the ROK learned the ASEAN regionalism concept by participating in ASEAN-centered multilateral diplomacy. After 1997, the 10+3 mechanism (ASEAN plus China, Japan and the ROK) was established, indirectly facilitating cooperation of the three Northeast Asia countries within the ASEAN framework. In 2008, the first China-Japan-ROK summit was held in Japan, formally establishing the trilateral cooperation mechanism. 

Some at the time argued that the cooperation of China, Japan and the ROK would reduce U.S. influence in Northeast Asia, causing the two key U.S. military allies to align more closely with China. However, ASEAN’s experience has shown that the primary goal and success of regional integration is not to target a third party but to achieve peace and development within the region itself. Viewing regional issues through the lens of a Cold War-style great power rivalry does not align with the actual interests of the region.

Second, from the beginning, the priority area for China-Japan-ROK cooperation has been the economy, with free trade forming the basis of the greatest strategic consensus. The China-Japan-ROK cooperation mechanism was established in 2008, at a time when the world was experiencing an economic crisis and a rise in trade protectionism. The three countries recognized that strengthening regional economic integration was essential to managing the risks posed by the global economic crisis.

In May 2014, the China-Japan-ROK Investment Agreement took effect, significantly promoting the development and upgrading of supply chains in East Asia. In November 2015, the sixth China-Japan-ROK summit reaffirmed the commitment to Trilateral Cooperation Vision 2020, which aims to further promote economic integration — including the long-term goal of establishing a regional common market and concluding the China-Japan-ROK Free Trade Agreement and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Although the China-Japan-ROK Free Trade Agreement has not yet been signed, the RCEP, which launched in 2022, has indirectly promoted the establishment of a trilateral free trade zone — a significant step toward the eventual establishment of such a zone.

With trade protectionism on the rise again and global trade facing the danger of fragmentation, China, Japan and the ROK — being the second-, fourth- and 13th-largest economies in the world — play a crucial role in stabilizing the global trade system. The annual trade volume between China and Japan and between China and the ROK each exceeds $350 billion, while the trade volume between Japan and the ROK exceeds $80 billion. Therefore, their commitment to free trade is vital for maintaining the stability of the global trade system.

Third, U.S.-Japan-ROK cooperation cannot rely on strengthening military alliances to counter China-Japan-ROK cooperation. Instead, focusing on economic openness and cooperation is the way to achieve peaceful coexistence and mutual benefits. In August, the first U.S.-Japan-ROK summit was held at Camp David. The joint statement issued afterward — the Spirit of Camp David — proposed institutionalizing annual meetings between leaders, foreign ministers, defense ministers and national security advisers of the three countries.

While cooperation between the U.S., Japan and the ROK is understandable, its core focus on strengthening a military alliance against a hypothetical enemy is neither conducive to regional security nor beneficial to regional economic development. The joint statement reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to extended deterrence supported by a full range of military capabilities for Japan and the ROK, and it stated that the three countries would conduct regular multi-domain military exercises annually.

But a regional policy based on deterrence will not lead to regional stability. Rather, it will exacerbate tensions. In the economic realm, the Camp David statement emphasized economic security, yet the U.S.-proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework lacks substantial content on free trade. Protective trade measures taken in the guise of risk reduction can harm the well-established supply chains of East Asia, which in turn undermines economic security for both Japan and the ROK.

China-Japan-ROK cooperation is neither targeted at the United States nor driven or sustained by U.S. factors. And it certainly should not be constrained by the U.S. The sustainability of future trilateral cooperation by China, Japan and the ROK ultimately depends on the continual development of internal dynamics within the three countries.

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