China’s refusal to attend this year’s summit with Japan and South Korea as scheduled comes at a trying moment for all three countries. Although Asia is the world’s most dynamic region, it has a paucity of institutional mechanisms for resolving, or at least mitigating, international disputes of the type that are ratcheting up tension across the region. Because the now-annual trilateral summits offer real hope for creating an institutionalized dialogue among North-East Asia’s “Big Three”, China’s unwillingness to participate this year does not bode well.
The first step in putting relations on a more stable footing is for each leader to acknowledge, and emphasize for their citizens, the ever-increasing interdependence of the three economies. Trade, investment, and production chains now link China, Japan, and South Korea in ways that no one could have imagined 20 years ago. Moreover, the region’s greatest threat—North Korea’s nuclear arsenal—endangers all three countries. While the threat may not affect them equally, none can afford a misstep. So, even security interests can serve to foster greater cooperation, if the countries’ leaders discuss and develop a common approach.
The sad paradox, however, is that, as economic integration among China, Japan, and South Korea has deepened, and even as their security risks have sometimes merged, their diplomatic ties have deteriorated. Of course, none can fully entrust their security to the word of the others—Japan’s alliance with the US is perhaps the only time in history when a great power has ever done that. Each will undoubtedly pursue—and find the means to secure—its own interests.
But that does not mean that clashes are inevitable. In today’s Asia, it is impossible to manage rival ambitions through hegemony, given the size of the countries involved and the structure of their alliances. So, all three countries must learn to live together amicably. Here, the first step is relatively straightforward: all three countries must give greater weight to factoring into their diplomatic calculations the others’ national-security fears. They also need to recognize that rhetoric and actions aimed at domestic audiences, no less than actual policies, can inflame suspicions.
Unfortunately, key groups in all three countries claim that the contest for regional mastery now underway means that talk about cooperation is not only naïve, but obsolete. Some Japanese and Korean strategic thinkers believe that China is intent not only on displacing the US as Asia’s leading power, but also on economic domination of the region. They see a China seeking to re-establish itself as “The Middle Kingdom”, with its neighbours reduced to vassal and tributary states.
While China’s military capacities are no match for America’s, its current military build-up is viewed as posing unacceptable risks nonetheless, because China also is seeking technological means to negate America’s military advantages. Should China succeed, its neighbours—which are increasingly tied to its economy—might adjust their policies to appease Chinese preferences. A Sino-centric Asia could emerge without a shot being fired.
But the region looks very different through Chinese eyes. From this perspective, a declining US is doing everything that it can to thwart China’s rise. America might speak the language of cooperation, but its real game is containment. So any sustained cooperation with the US and its regional allies—Japan and South Korea—would only help America to shackle China. Instead, China should openly confront those neighbours with which it has disputed claims.
Given these disparate visions of what Asia looks like, is there any point in seeking cooperation among North-East Asia’s Big Three? A China that balks at participating in a trilateral summit seems to think there is not.
If challenged, all three will undoubtedly do what they must to preserve their security. But to adopt confrontation as their preferred strategy will be a serious mistake. Any conflict among them will leave them all significantly worse off. And, when peace is restored, they will find themselves back at square one, still needing to build a regional order in which the others would play a big part.
The current situation in North-East Asia does not require any of the three countries to abandon cherished national claims. But their leaders must distinguish between those that are aspirations and those that are realizable, and they must begin to explain to their citizens this distinction. None should reduce their diplomatic and security relations to a zero-sum game over claims to this or that island, for example. Nor should China’s continued rise, Korea’s eventual reunification, or Japan’s renaissance be regarded by the others as a strategic threat.
Crisis management is no way to sustain relationships that are economically close but riddled by rival claims and bitterly contested historical narratives. As long as China, Japan, and South Korea regard every encounter with one another as an opportunity to settle scores or gain some strategic advantage, brinkmanship will remain North-East Asia’s fate. Indeed, the main beneficiary of the current tensions among the Big Three is the region’s most reckless actor—North Korea.
Yuriko Koike is Japan’s former defence minister and national security adviser, was chairwoman of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party and currently is a member of the National Diet.
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