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Situation in Northeast Asia Still Fragile

Jul 26, 2023
  • Wang Fudong

    Assistant Research Fellow, Institute of International Economics and Politics, Shandong Academy of Social Sciences

With the recent intensive high-level dialogues between China and the United States, there have been signs of reduced tensions in Northeast Asia. The Japanese government regards the stabilizing of relations with China as the focus of its foreign policy in the second half of this year. On many occasions, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida expressed his readiness to visit China and have direct talks with Chinese officials to promote constructive and stable relations.

On July 5, Chinese Premier Li Qiang met with a delegation from the Japan Association for the Promotion of International Trade. The exchanges between the defense authorities of the two countries are also returning to normal, as evidenced by the creation of a hotline between them.

At the same time, the once stagnant high-level exchanges between China and South Korea have gradually resumed. On July 4, the two countries held meetings at the vice foreign minister level in Beijing. Then on July 14, Wang Yi, Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office, met with South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin in Jakarta, Indonesia, where both sides emphasized the need to get bilateral relations back on the right track, strengthen exchanges at all levels, strengthen cooperation in production and supply chains and boost people-to-people exchanges.

The new detente in Northeast Asia can be attributed to many factors. First, the recent adjustment of U.S. relations with China has provided an opportunity for Japan and South Korea to adjust their China policies as well. Earlier this year, China-U.S. relations had deteriorated further as Washington overreacted to the balloon incident. High-level exchanges and various communication mechanisms were interrupted, and the risk of the relationship veering out of control rose sharply. Yet it is not in the interest of the United States for the two countries decouple their economies or to engage in military conflict. Given the deeply intertwined nature of their economies, decoupling would deal a heavy blow to the dollar system and the global economic dominance of the United States.

Moreover, opposition has been growing to decoupling because it has damaged the economic interests of Europe and other allies. Therefore, the United States and Europe have frequently emphasized recently that they do not seek economic decoupling from China. Rather, they stress the need for de-risking (or precision strikes) in specific areas.

On military affairs, Washington emphasizes setting up “guardrails” for bilateral relations to avoid misjudgments and conflicts. This adjustment of the U.S. position toward China has made a great impact on Japan’s and South Korea’s China policies.

Second, Japan’s and South Korea’s interests drive them to promote dialogue with China. Economically, the three countries — all of which are in the East Asian economic circle — share highly integrated economic networks and industrial chains. In working together with the United States to undermine China’s competitiveness in semiconductors and other fields, Tokyo and Seoul have suffered enormous damage to their own economic and geographical interests.

Tokyo aims to stabilize economic and trade relations with China, avoid the possible adverse effects of China’s export control measures and attract Chinese tourists to stimulate economic growth. It also hopes to reduce international resentment over its nuclear wastewater plan by improving relations with Beijing.

For the Yoon Suk Yeol administration in South Korea, the political returns of following the aggressive American policy toward China are diminishing, and most elites and members of the public blame U.S. diplomatic imbalance, which has become an important factor hindering the stability of national governance.

Bilateral trade has fallen sharply this year. China has turned from being largely responsible for South Korea’s large trade surplus to its largest source of trade deficit, which has had a great impact on the Korean economy. To reverse economic stagnation and resolve the pressure of domestic voices demanding diplomatic balance, the administration finds it imperative to resume dialogue with Beijing, regardless of its friendly or tough stance on the country.

Third, China welcomes open dialogue and win-win cooperation, creating conditions for the improvement of situations in the region. Despite Washington’s provocative efforts to form competing camps, China focuses on domestic development and improvement of its people’s livelihoods. On the world stage, it welcomes cooperation and openness, stands against trade protectionism and supports globalization. It has had positive interactions with the European Union, ASEAN, the Middle East, Latin America and Central Asia, and has resumed exchanges with Japan and South Korea at the non-governmental, social and local levels. This leaves a certain impression on Japan’s and South Korea’s perceptions of China and informs their policy adjustments.

The easing of relations between China, Japan and South Korea contributes to the stability of Northeast Asia and helps prevent regional situations from spiraling out of control. In addition, it enhances economic cooperation to overcome downside risks, and strengthens exchanges at the governmental, civil society and people-to-people levels.

However, the current detente remains fragile and limited. It is not driving long-term improvement in the overall regional situation. This is mainly because the current adjustments in the China policies of the United States, Japan and South Korea are tactical rather than strategic. Washington’s overall strategic objective of containing China has not changed, and in Japan and South Korea there has been no substantive change in perceptions and policies toward China among policymakers.

The U.S. continues its attempts to suppress and contain the rise of China. The NATO summit invited the leaders of Japan and South Korea, a U.S. nuclear submarine made a port call in South Korea for the first time in 42 years and the U.S.-Japan-South Korea summit is set to be held in the United States in August.

The possibility that the situation in Northeast Asia will continue to deteriorate cannot be ruled out because of the ongoing campaign to pressure on China. Undoubtedly, however, the stability and prosperity of Northeast Asia best serve the common interests of China, Japan and South Korea. In fact, common interests far outweigh the differences of the three countries. If these countries only serve the strategic goals of foreign countries, they will undoubtedly fall into a zero-sum game at their own expense. In this scenario, their advantages of regional division of labor and coordination will be significantly reduced. So will their status and value in global competition, thus leading to lose-lose situation.

At the same time, since these countries bear the brunt of the risk of geopolitical conflict in the region, there is an urgent need for them to halt the closing of the window of opportunity for dialogue. They should promote regional reconciliation and cooperation from the perspective of their own interests and the overall interests of the wider region. 

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