BEIJING — Premier Li Keqiang travels to Seoul this weekend for an official visit to the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the first leaders’ meeting of the top three economies in East Asia after a three-year hiatus.
Given the economic heft of China, Japan and the ROK, observers say, the upcoming summit is set to inject a badly needed dose of political impetus into their cooperation and fresh vigor into regional development.
TURNING POINT FOR COOPERATION
As a crucial and integral part of East Asian cooperation, the trilateral mechanism was initiated in 1999 as a derivative of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan and ROK platform, with annual leaders’ meetings launched in 2008 outside the 10+3 framework.
It had grown into a full-fledged institution featuring all-dimensional, multi-tiered and wide-ranging cooperation before its temperature took a nosedive in 2012 due to a string of Japanese moves on historical and territorial issues that angered both China and the ROK.
Now the resumption of the summitry, the core of the tripartite arrangement, indicates that cooperation among the three countries is finding its way out of the straits, returning to the right track and marching into a new phase, said Yang Houlan, secretary-general of the Seoul-based China-Japan-ROK Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat.
In the lead-up to the renewal, President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held an ice-breaking summit in November on the sidelines of the 22nd Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Beijing.
Meanwhile, relations between the ROK and Japan have also been on the mend. At the 10+3 summit last year, ROK President Park Geun-hye voiced her hope that the three countries would hold a foreign ministers’ meeting in the near future and then a trilateral summit. During her early September visit to China, Park also sought China’s support in resuming the leaders’ meetings.
Although the resumption does not mean that the three countries have solved their problems, it shows that they are intent on improving relations and handling differences, said Ruan Zongze, vice president of China Institute of International Studies.
In addition, the high-level meeting is poised to create a sound atmosphere that will restrain relevant parties from misbehaving and invigorate trilateral cooperation at different levels, and thus play a positive role in improving China-Japan-ROK ties and promoting regional stability and development, he added.
COMMUNITY OF COMMON DESTINY
China, Japan and the ROK are close neighbors and leading players in Asia. Their population accounts for 70 percent of the East Asian total, and their GDP makes up 70 percent of the whole Asian economic output.
“So China-Japan-ROK cooperation is important not only to the three countries themselves but also to the whole Asia and Asia-Pacific,” said Jiang Ruiping, deputy director of China Foreign Affairs University.
The upcoming summit is set to discuss international production capacity cooperation, technological innovation, alignment of development initiatives, free trade talks and regional economic integration, among other topics.
The three sides will have an in-depth exchange of views, reach extensive consensus and push forward their cooperation towards higher levels, broader areas, larger scales and a more diversified and optimized structure, said Chinese Assistant Minister of Commerce Tong Daochi at a recent press briefing.
Following the summit, they are expected to release joint statements on cooperation in such areas as agriculture, trade and environment and make remarks on historical issues.
Noting that East Asia is now the most economically dynamic region in the world, but China-Japan-ROK cooperation, a major engine of regional development, has been hindered by political and diplomatic issues, Woody Han, director of ROK JoongAng Ilbo China Institute, said he hopes the summit will restore the development vigor of East Asia.
In the eyes of Prof. Kumiko Haba of Japan’s Aoyama Gakuin University, the meeting should serve as an opportunity to expand trilateral exchanges of scholars and the general public, which will form the biggest guarantee for peace and prosperity.
Atsushi Kouketsu, a deputy head of Japan’s Yamaguchi University, urged the three countries to seize the momentum and regularize their leaders’ meetings once again while committing themselves to foster friendly relations and prepare for the building of a EU-like Asian community of common destiny in the future.
ONUS ON JAPAN
Observers agree that Japan was to blame for the breakdown of the trilateral summitry, whose last session -- the fifth -- took place in Beijing in 2012.
In essence, it was the various problems caused by Tokyo’s wrong approach to history that eventually led to the suspension, said Han, who also pointed to Japan’s separate territorial disputes with China and the ROK.
Haba, who is a Ph.D. of international relations, attributed the hiatus to a serious aggravation of Japan’s relations with China and the ROK prompted mainly by Tokyo’s so-called “nationalization” of Diaoyu Islands and the rightward slide of the Abe administration.
She pointed out that in the wake of its highly controversial lifting of the ban on exercising collective self-defense, the Abe government has seen its popularity on the skids and thus, in order to arrest the decline, has to mend fences with Japan’s neighbors.
The Japanese government, said Yazaki Mitsuharu, head of the secretariat of Japan-China Friendship Association, should from now on try to earn the trust of China and the ROK with right words and actions and roll out practical measures to promote regional cooperation.
He also called upon Tokyo to shift the focus of its foreign policy from the United States to East Asia and make concerted efforts with Beijing and Seoul to promote regional development and world peace.
Japan, he added, also needs to respond positively to such regional initiatives and visions as the Asian Infrastructure Invest Bank, the Belt and Road Initiative and the construction of a Northeast Asian community of common destiny.