Competing integrations

Via China Daily

Collision looms between growing cooperation of East Asian countries and US-dominated regionalism\

The Fifth Trilateral Summit between China, Japan and the Republic of Korea on May 13-14, was undoubtedly a weather vane indicating the future development of the trilateral relationship and East Asian integration.

The summit issued the Joint Declaration on the Enhancement of Trilateral Comprehensive Cooperative Partnership, and injected new vitality into the trilateral cooperation in both its depth and width, by promoting enhanced mutual political trust, deeper economic and trade cooperation, the promotion of sustainable development, the expanding of social, people-to-people and cultural exchanges, and strengthened coordination and cooperation over major regional and international issues.

The three countries agreed to begin talks on a free-trade agreement within the year, and to immediately initiate domestic procedures and carry out pragmatic consultations and other preparatory work.

Establishing a China-Japan-ROK free trade area at an early date will inject strong momentum into East Asian economic integration. It will be one of the most important breakthroughs in trilateral cooperation since the establishment of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat in September 2011.

In addition, the three countries also confirmed their support for cooperation in non-traditional security areas, such as disaster prevention, maritime search and rescue, energy security, cyber security, communicable diseases, and counter terrorism. This fully demonstrates that China, Japan and the ROK have reached a broad consensus on strengthening regional governance and addressing non-traditional security threats.

However, over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands there was a heated debate during the meeting. While meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Premier Wen Jiabao urged Japan to respect China's core interests and major concerns, carefully and properly handle relevant issues and stick to the correct path for the development of bilateral ties in accordance with the principles enshrined in the four political documents signed between the two nations.

Geopolitical disputes have obstructed, and will probably continue to obstruct and interfere with, the East Asian cooperation process.

In addition, after lengthy consultations, provisions related to condemning the DPRK's missile launch and new nuclear tests were excluded from the declaration. This shows that there are major differences between China, Japan and the ROK on the DPRK nuclear issue.

Their enthusiasm and motivation for establishing a three-way FTA are also different. In fact, Japan is concerned that the Japanese economy will eventually become dependent on China's economy, but Japan does not want to be outdone by the ROK, which has already started to negotiate an FTA with China. Japan fears being marginalized in East Asia.

In recent years, relations between China, Japan and the ROK have become increasingly complex and subtle. Japan and the ROK are worried that a rising China will change the regional order, while China and the ROK are worried about a militarily ambitious Japan. The ROK also has its own regional ambitions.

And without effectively resolving the hostility left over from history, sovereignty disputes over islands and sea areas that have been plaguing the three might be further intensified.

Meanwhile, the United States is the most important external factor affecting the cooperation between China, Japan and the ROK. With its strategic shift to Asia, the US has further increased its security and economic input in East Asia.

It has further strengthened its military alliance with Japan and the ROK, and actively facilitates military cooperation with them, and a multilateral mechanism that is both offensive and defensive has begun to take shape. The ROK and Japan's heavy security dependence on the US will further weaken their willingness to cooperate with China in major regional security issues.

By signing the US-ROK FTA and lobbying for Japan's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Washington is attempting to further bind Japan and the ROK to it. Once the US-ROK FTA and the TPP start operating, it will inevitably have a countervailing impact on the emerging China-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation mechanism and the "10+3" mechanism. Thus, there will be a collision and competition between the US-dominated regionalism in East Asia and the spontaneously formed regionalism of East Asian countries.

What are the prospects for China-Japan-ROK cooperation and how can the three countries transcend geopolitical strife?

First, China, Japan and the ROK should make joint efforts to provide public goods for regional peace, stability and prosperity in both economic and security sectors; second, they need to strengthen strategic mutual trust, especially in military and security fields; third, they need to promote multi-track exchanges and dialogue; fourth, they should enhance nongovernmental exchanges; finally, and perhaps most importantly, the United States needs to be persuaded to respect the peoples' choice in East Asia. Only in this way will East Asia embrace a bright future.

The author is a researcher with the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Ainsley Shea