High expectations from the Japan, South Korea, China summit

Despite being communists and capitalists, American allies and adversaries, mutual partners and historical rivals, leaders of three Asian nations are getting together to come up with ways of engaging an unruly neighbor. On 24 December, Japan and South Korea will be joining China in the central Chinese city of Chengdu and deciding how to handle North Korea’s increasingly worrying nuclear ambitions.

Aims of the Japan, South Korea, China Summit

Apart from carrying out a massive volume of regional trade, cooperation among the three historically opposing countries has been rare. But the threat from North Korea has provided them a common ground to pursue a joint strategy. 

When they sit in Chengdu, the leaders will be reviewing the latest security situation, boosting trilateral cooperation and coming up with ways of containing the nuclearization of the region. To be precise, its a sitting aimed solely at North Korea. 

Traditionally China has enjoyed influence over the communist nation’s leadership and, at several points in recent history, it has mended ways only after intervention by China. Japan and South Korea, on the other hand, are considered rivals by North Korea. Both being capitalist states, democracies and American allies are prime targets of its ire. 

Solving the North Korean riddle, that has surpassed generations of leaders in the three countries, is not easy. Yet the will among them is an encouraging sign with a glimmer of a positive outcome from the Chengdu summit. 

Saving GSOMIA

Japan and South Korea have signed an intelligence-sharing pact that allows them to exchange information on nuclear and missile activities of North Korea. Known as General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), the pact was on the brink of collapse after both countries came to trade blows owing to their historical differences.

Despite being US partners in efforts against denuclearization of the region, South Korea’s intention of discontinuing GSOMIA’s renewal sent worrying signals across the globe. Although it reversed the decision hours before the expiry of the agreement, bickering among Japan and South Korea has emboldened North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, raised his threats and increased his missile tests.

The historical dispute, stemming from the forced labor of Koreans by Japan during its colonization of the peninsula, morphed into an economic one but was saved from turning into a security headache. Economic concessions’ announcement by their leaders and an intervention by the US – which also benefits from GSOMIA – eventually saved the agreement but the shaky alliance is far from getting stable. The historical issues still remain unresolved and a trade war of their own is showing no signs of slowing down. 

People watch a TV screen showing a file image of a North Korean rocket during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station (AP Photo)
People watch a TV screen showing a file image of a North Korean rocket during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station (AP Photo)

The Trade War Between Japan and South Korea

Timeline of the trade war between Japan and South Korea starts with South Korea’s supreme court ruling in 2018 that Japan must compensate victims of forced labor. Japan immediately made it clear that all issues pertaining to the forced labor have been settled under a 1965 agreement between the two countries.

The disputing claims became nationalist and political issues and soon spiraled out of control with both setting up economic hurdles for each other. In July 2019, Japan tightened control over the export of materials crucial to producing semiconductors.

South Korea’s electronics production industry was directly threatened by this move. Semiconductors are vital for its economy as it is one of the world’s top electronics manufacturing nations. 

When South Korea lashed back at Japan, the latter upped the ante by removing it from a “white list” of trusted trade partners in October. South Koreans have since been calling for boycotting Japanese products and tourism to hurt the Japanese economy. 

The upcoming summit will be a unique opportunity for the two countries to scale back their rhetoric and cool down the populist narratives that are taking a toll on their economies. 

China-South Korea Ties after the Missile Defence Row

Historically, South Korea has been closer to China than Japan. But US actions to counter the North Korean threat have at times tested their relationship. 

In 2017, the US installed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea to intercept any possible missiles coming from North Korea. The system comes with a long-range radar that can see flying objects well into Chinese territory. 

China raised strong objections on THAAD’s installation, terming it a move to upset the security balance of the region. The dispute seeped into social and economic realms, sending shockwaves into the South Korean economy. Its tourism, cosmetics and entertainment industries suffered heavily while bearing the brunt of China’s economic power. 

Earlier this month, however, both China and South Korea decided to move on and reset their ties as China appeared satisfied with the intentions of the American missile defense system. Both at the receiving end of tariffs from the US and its ally Japan are now looking at increasing high-level exchanges and undo three years of economic challenges.

Japan’s Lessons for China in the Trade War with the US

China is facing a trade war with the US that Japan has since long defeated. Although the US considers China a strategic rival, what it did to Japan was a plethora of protectionist tariffs thrown upon an ally. China is facing the same person – in the form of the US president – who, during the peak of the US trade war with Japan, accused Japan of “systematically sucking the blood out of America“. 

During the 70s, the trade balance between Japan and the US was highly tilted in favor of the former. The result was limiting imports from and imposing tariffs on Japan, deteriorating relations between the two to levels not seen since the second world war. 

Although the Japanese economy remained stalled for more than 10 years, China today has more leverage by being the world’s second-largest economy. Meanwhile, a strong rapport between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has enabled them to exchange notes on how to tackle the threat once pitched against Japan. 

The coming trilateral summit will allow them to deepen their cooperation in the face of the pressing security and economic issues. Japan came out stronger from its trade war with the US and China is looking exactly at that. Even if Japan is today closer to the US than it is to China, there still exists an eastern connection that will eventually let them sort out their problems. 

The Chinese Axis of Japan and South Korea

The complexity of Asia’s geopolitics can be fathomed from the entangled alliances that present joint postures against threats in one direction while conflicting positions against threats in the other. 

Japan and China hold different views on the South China Sea but similar on US trade tactics and North Korean missiles. South Korea and China hold different views on US involvement in the region but the same on historical disputes with Japan. 

The Chengdu summit is expected to unify their stance on North Korea. Trade and historical differences among the three are letting their nuclear neighbor grow its arsenal unchecked. Fortunately, they realize that and are willing to sit down and discuss. 

On North Korea, sanctions are not working, top-level diplomatic engagement is not working and neither is any kind of appeasement. China, Japan, and South Korea can come up with a regional solution to convince Mr. Kim Jong-un to give peace a chance, open up the country and initiate an era of economic prosperity for his people.