Changing geopolitics & China’s role in the Trilateral Summit: Moving beyond functional cooperation

China Plus Published: 2018-05-09 13:49:35
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By Stephen R. Nagy

East Asia’s leadership and geopolitical landscape has changed dramatically since the last Trilateral Summit in 2015. Today, the possibility of a permanent peace is being discussed on the Korean Peninsula, we have strong leaders in Beijing, Tokyo and Washington, and trade-wars, not free trade is being discussed in the region’s capitals. 

As a result, North Korea and trade will be the key themes being discussed between Premier Li Keqiang, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Moon Jae-in. Both issues are central to Beijing’s priority of maintaining regional stability to achieve key socio-economic goals: 1) wiping out poverty by 2021 timed for the Party’s Centennial; 2) becoming a modern socialist country by 2035; and 3) becoming a modern socialist “strong power” with leading influence on the world stage by 2049 timed for the PRC’s Centennial.


Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L), Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in pose for photos at a trilateral meeting in Tokyo on Wednesday, May 9, 2018. [Photo: gov.cn]

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L), Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in pose for photos at a trilateral meeting in Tokyo on Wednesday, May 9, 2018. [Photo: gov.cn]

Conflict on the Korean peninsula or the evolution of the peninsula or North Korea in a trajectory that does not mirror Beijing’s national interests could derail efforts to achieve the above national objectives. Premier Li will be keen to learn from President Moon as to what were the concrete achievements from the historical April 27th, 2018 Inter-Korean Summit. This will include knowing much more about what China should expect in the months and years ahead as the two Koreas attempt to negotiate a permanent end to their conflict. 

The outcome of the Inter-Korean Summit is important, but Beijing is also keen to acquire insight into what may occur at the upcoming Trump-Kim Summit. China, like Japan will not be at the negotiating table and both have concerns that the Summit could result in their national interests not being represented. However unlikely, the worst-case scenario would be a Nixon moment in which the Trump Administration provides enough carrots to Pyongyang that it could induce it to denuclearize and tilt towards Washington’s sphere of influence. While a longshot, given Beijing’s own tilt towards the US during the Cold War to stop Soviet expansionism, demonstrates that adversaries can and sometimes do shift their geopolitical affiliation when they feel its suits their long term national interests. 

Through security guarantee in exchange for a peace agreement, a non-aggression pact and financial aid to develop the backward North, it is conceivable that Pyongyang could be flipped, however unlikely. 

A more likely scenario would include economic investment from the South (and China, Japan and perhaps the US), cultural exchanges and an incremental convergence in political, economic and security norms over decades. The South’s level of development and cultural vibrancy suggest that this process would be in the direction of a South-led convergence. The question for Beijing would be whether this process would lead to a pro-US federation or neutral federation with the latter the obviously preference for leaders in Zhongnanhai. 

In either case, Beijing’s priority is that the evolution of the peninsula is one towards peace and economic prosperity that does not disrupt or negatively influence Northeast China’s socio-economic conditions and socialist institutions.  

The Japanese on the other hand are much more focused about Pyongyang’s post denuclearization inclination (if it happens) and less so on the evolution of the peninsula’s political inclinations. For Tokyo, they will want to hear from President Moon that denuclearization will include short, mid and long-range missile systems as well as submarine launch platforms will also be on the table. 

Anything less would leave the Japanese in a security quandary as they would still be within the range of North Korean missiles and submarine based launching systems. With an alleged security threat still emanating out of the North, political leaders in Tokyo would find it increasingly difficult not to build up their military defences. This would raise perennial fears about Japan’s remilitarization in the region and potentially spark and arms race in the region.    

On the economic front, all three economies are export-oriented economies and they have shared concerns with President Trump’s “America First” economic agenda. Beijing will be looking to its Trilateral partners for solidarity on securing the vision of trade laid out by President Xi’s speech at Davos in 2017 in which he stressed that “We must promote trade and investment, liberalization and facilitation through opening up – and say no to protectionism.”

Promoting the acceleration of the China-Japan-South Korea FTA (Trilateral FTA) and or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) may be one strategy of adverting a vicious cycle of punitive trade measures that may come with a trade war between the US and China. The question for Beijing will be whether Tokyo and Seoul would be willing to commit to these trade agreements. More saliently, would negotiations towards the RCEP and or a trilateral FTA increase the incentive for the US to join the CPTPP as a means to be not locked out of East Asia’s economic development?

Tokyo’s preference for multilateral FTAs is clear in the wake of the signing of the Japan-EU EPA and the CPTPP. Its preference it to expand the CPTPP to include other countries in the region including South Korea and eventually the US. Conceivably, the agreement is also open to China if it chooses to agree to the rules laid out by the 11 founding member countries. Despite this preference, Tokyo is open to other trading arrangements such as the RCEP and the trilateral FTA as is Seoul.

The Trilateral Summit provides Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo the opportunity to discuss their shared vision of trade for the region.  “The ‘Community of Common Destiny’ and the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ that stress win-win relationships, mutual respect, and co-operation are a good start, but these initiatives need to go together with increased transparency and stakeholdership to garner real support in Seoul and Tokyo.

Its clear that from North Korea to trade, the participants of the Trilateral Summit are not on the same page of the book. Each has different interests on the peninsula and with the direction of trade. South Korea and Japan’s alliances with the US are a strong cohesive that keeps their security and economic interests in line with the US. China on the other hand has security concerns associated with the evolution of the peninsula and its security environment in the region well-grounded in its history of being colonialized, a humiliation that was launched from its Eastern coastline and the Korean peninsula. 

Notwithstanding the differences that are sure to be discussed at the summit, non-traditional security cooperation between Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo will be an area of promise. Environmental cooperation, post-disaster recovery and assistance, anti-piracy and cooperation in dealing with transnational diseases such as SARS, Avian influenza and other diseases will be deepened demonstrating that despite some differences that cooperation between Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo will continue to deepen at a functional level. The key is for leaders to transform that functional cooperation to deeper levels of trust and shard norms. 

(Dr. Stephen R. Nagy is a Senior Associate Professor of International Relations and Politics at the International Christian University, Tokyo. Concurrently, he is a Distinguished Fellow with Canada's the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and an appointed China Expert with Canada’s China Research Partnership.)

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