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APEC Summit: Will It Matter for Northeast Asia?

Nov 05 , 2014

The post-Cold War geopolitical balance in Northeast Asia has been askew for the last two years. While most students of foreign policy would attribute this imbalance to a more nationalistic and assertive Japan, particularly since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in December 2012, that is only part of the reason for the recent drift away from Japan. Economics and security are beginning to reassert themselves in the regional calculus, which has begun pushing relationships in unexpected directions.

Abe will attempt to use this year’s APEC Leaders Summit to reset relations with several of Japan’s neighbors. While a photo opportunity and a vague public commitment to improve relations may provide a mild form of short-term relief, it will do little to address the underlying issues that have been gradually transforming the region. Japan’s relationship with each of its Northeast Asian neighbors will not be dramatically altered by one meeting, however hard Abe has been lobbying over the past few months. Nevertheless, the summit provides an opportunity to see the transformation the region is currently undergoing.

Japan and China have for the last few decades enjoyed an improving bilateral relationship, underwritten by an economic symbiosis between heavy Japanese investment in China, and cheap Chinese labor for Japanese companies. Unfortunately for their relationship, the fundamentals of this relationship are beginning to change. While the shift in Japanese investment from China to Southeast Asia has been attributed in large part to their dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and China’s insistence that Japan more formally accept responsibility for atrocities committed during the Second World War, that is only part of the story.

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