Why is North­east Asia fraught with un­cer­tain­ties?

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - VIEWS -

For China-Ja­pan-Repub­lic of Korea re­la­tions, ar­guably the most im­por­tant tri­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship in the re­gion, this year has not been good. The re­cent im­peach­ment of ROK Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye, be­sides deal­ing a heavy blow to her po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, has de­layed the tri­lat­eral lead­er­ship meet­ing that was orig­i­nally sched­uled for the end of the year.

Things started get­ting more com­pli­cated af­ter Seoul al­lowed Wash­ing­ton to de­ploy the Ter­mi­nal High Alti­tude Area De­fense anti-mis­sile sys­tem on the ROK soil, which Bei­jing is ve­he­mently op­posed to. While Seoul’s de­ci­sion on THAAD has fur­ther strained China-ROK ties, the on­go­ing po­lit­i­cal drama in the ROK is not at all con­ducive to re­build­ing trust among the three neigh­bors.

China-Ja­pan re­la­tions have not seen any im­prove­ment ei­ther. In­stead, they have be­come more strained af­ter Tokyo sought to med­dle in and play up the South China Sea dis­putes be­tween China and some ASEAN mem­ber states. And by scram­bling its fighter jets af­ter Chi­nese air force planes had passed through Miyako Strait re­cently, Ja­pan has added a grave twist to the al­ready strained bi­lat­eral ties. Add to all the un­ex­pected twists in ROK-Ja­pan re­la­tions and you get a pic­ture of a re­gion full of un­cer­tain­ties. At the end of last year, Seoul and Tokyo agreed to set­tle their long-stand­ing dif­fer­ences over Korean “com­fort women”, a mis­nomer for women and girls forced into sex­ual slav­ery by the Ja­panese army be­fore and dur­ing World War II. Less than a month ago, they signed an agree­ment to share mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence. The high point of tri­lat­eral co­op­er­a­tion (and prob­a­bly the only one) this year has been the first Tri­lat­eral High-Level Di­a­logue on the Arc­tic in Seoul in April. In­creas­ing se­cu­rity-ori­ented fric­tions, along with dis­putes left be­hind by his­tory, ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences, and clashes over na­tional in­ter­ests, have thwarted the three coun­tries from seek­ing com­mon ground. Be­cause of stalled high-level com­mu­ni­ca­tions and es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions, strate­gic mu­tual trust ap­pears to have suf­fered the most in the tri­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship. That Ja­pan and the ROK are co­op­er­at­ing more closely with the United States in mil­i­tary and eco­nomic mat­ters is a case in point. The sim­mer­ing ten­sions in North­east Asia re­flect the ma­jor changes in the re­gional se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion. Since tak­ing of­fice in 2012, Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe has been re­lent­lessly build­ing up Ja­pan’s armed forces af­ter re­claim­ing the right to col­lec­tive de­fense by muscling through con­sti­tu­tional re­vi­sions in par­lia­ment. He has also con­tin­ued to in­ten­sify de­fense co­op­er­a­tion with the US in pur­suit of mak­ing Ja­pan “a nor­mal state”.

Abe is sched­uled to visit Pearl Har­bor with US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama on Dec 26, which will make him the first sit­ting Ja­panese leader since the end of World War II to do so.

Ja­pan has to re­al­ize that full rec­on­cil­i­a­tion among Bei­jing, Seoul and Tokyo is un­likely un­less it truly faces up to its past. Abe has nei­ther vis­ited Nan­jing, where more than 300,000 Chi­nese were mas­sa­cred by the in­vad­ing Im­pe­rial Ja­panese Army from De­cem­ber 1937 to Jan­uary 1938, nor has he apol­o­gized to the Chi­nese peo­ple for the atroc­i­ties they suf­fered un­der the oc­cu­py­ing Ja­panese forces. And this is what makes Abe’s in­ten­tions, in­clud­ing the rea­son be­hind vis­it­ing Pearl Har­bor, highly sus­pi­cious.

Ja­pan-ROK ties have in­deed been im­prov­ing not be­cause of deep­en­ing mu­tual trust but be­cause of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “re­bal­anc­ing” to the Asia-Pa­cific strat­egy and the de­ploy­ment of THAAD, which makes them feel more se­cure.

But if Ja­pan and the ROK con­tinue to ex­ces­sively lean on the US’ shoul­ders, they would thwart fu­ture ne­go­ti­a­tions on a China-Ja­pan-ROK free trade agree­ment, a pos­si­ble game-changer in tri­lat­eral ties. So whether the three neigh­bors can fix their prob­lems will largely de­pend on the im­por­tance they at­tach to the tri­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship. The re­sump­tion of tri­lat­eral lead­er­ship meet­ings will sig­nify that im­por­tance.

The au­thor is a re­searcher at the China In­sti­tutes of Con­tem­po­rary In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions. The ar­ti­cle is an ex­cerpt from her in­ter­view with China Daily’s Cui Shoufeng.

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