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A New Dawn
Regional ties enter a positive era as the leaders of East Asia's big three meet
By Yu Lintao | NO.20 MAY 17, 2018

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae In (left to right) attend the Seventh China-Japan-South Korea leaders' meeting in Tokyo on May 9 (XINHUA)

Following a hiatus of more than two years, the Seventh China-Japan-Republic of Korea (ROK) Leaders' Meeting finally convened in Tokyo on May 9, during which the leaders of the three countries reaffirmed their commitment to economic globalization as well as the liberalization of trade and investment, while also vowing to promote denuclearization and maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. The meeting also coincided with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's official visit to Japan, the first by a Chinese premier in eight years.

The resumption of the tripartite meeting and Li's visit to Japan are believed to forecast a further easing of diplomatic tensions in East Asia and a real thaw in China-Japan relations after years in the cold.

The Tokyo trilateral meeting came amid a series of significant changes to international and regional circumstances, particularly progress on the Korean Peninsula after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's successful trips to China and summit with South Korean President Moon Jae In, as well as U.S. President Donald Trump's assault on the world's multilateral system of trade by instigating conflicts with several major economies. Against this backdrop, the exchange of views between the three countries on regional and global issues is of great significance for advancing strategic cooperation and maintaining regional stability and prosperity.

According to Jiang Yuechun, a senior researcher with the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), Li's official visit to Japan marked a warming of China-Japan ties, which is significant not only to bilateral relations between the two economic powerhouses but also to the peace and prosperity of East Asia.

Promoting free trade

In Tokyo, leaders of the three countries pledged to boost free trade against a rising undercurrent of protectionism around the world. In a joint statement released after the meeting, the three nations reiterated their intention to accelerate the negotiation of a trilateral free trade agreement (FTA) and the realization of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as early as possible.

China, Japan and South Korea are three of the world's major economies with a combined GDP accounting for more than 20 percent of the global total. All three are export-oriented economies and have a huge stake in each other's markets. Statistics from China's General Administration of Customs show that the China-Japan bilateral import and export of goods in 2017 reached around $303 billion, an increase of 10.1 percent year on year. Exports from Japan to China stood at $137 billion while imports from China were $166 billion. China and the ROK are the second and the third biggest importers for Japanese products respectively, as well as its first and fourth largest exporters.

Close trade relations constitute the foundation for the trilateral FTA. Though negotiations have dragged on for years due to disagreement on certain issues, the enthusiasm of the three countries and the foundation for the trilateral FTA have not changed, according to Yang Bojiang, a researcher on Japanese studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He added that the current tide of anti-globalization and trade protectionism will further motivate the three countries to reach an arrangement of their own.

The Trump administration has threatened all three countries with tariffs in a bid to seek trade concessions from them, and his moves have raised fears of a trade war between the United States and China. In response, China, Japan and South Korea can become important forces for promoting the liberalization of trade, Tatsuhiko Yoshizaki, chief economist at Japan's Sojitz Research Institute, was quoted as saying by Xinhua News Agency.

It is believed that efforts by the three countries toward the China-Japan-ROK FTA and RCEP will pave the way for an FTA in the Asia-Pacific region, making the global economy more open, inclusive and balanced to the benefit of all.

In Tokyo, the three nations also pledged the expansion of areas for cooperation. At a business summit during which the three leaders were in attendance, Premier Li declared that China is willing to work with its two neighbors to strengthen cooperation in areas such as the digital economy, artificial intelligence, environmental protection, and medical and health services. He also proposed that the three countries carry out joint projects in areas such as capacity cooperation, poverty reduction, disaster management and energy saving through a new model of cooperation.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on the same occasion that the resumption of trilateral cooperation creates new opportunities for the three countries' economic development and cooperation. He also called for more people-to-people exchanges and more cooperation in finance, scientific research and technological development, as well as in dealing with population aging. Moon urged the three sides to step up cooperation in joint research and development, energy, medical services, environmental protection and disaster relief, so as to bring tangible benefits to the people of all three nations.

Peace on the peninsula

In their joint statement after the Tokyo meeting, the three leaders reaffirmed their countries' shared commitment to the settlement of the issue on the Korean Peninsula under the framework of the related resolutions of the UN Security Council, as well as to safeguarding the peace and stability of the region.

The Chinese and Japanese leaders applaud and welcome the historic summit between Moon and Kim, said the statement, adding that Li and Abe also appreciate the signing of the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, and the confirmation of the common goals of realizing complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and establishing a permanent peace mechanism.

"The consensus reached by the three countries on the Korean issue is helpful for maintaining the momentum of recent positive developments on the peninsula. It is important to resolve the issue based on the related resolutions of the UN Security Council," said Shi Yongming, a researcher of Asian studies with CIIS.

Shi told Beijing Review that the three countries' efforts toward strengthening regional economic cooperation will also offer an opportunity to promote peace in the region as North Korea gradually turns its focus to economic development.

Fresh start

After several years of estrangement due to territorial disputes and Japan's revisionist attitude toward its past, China-Japan relations have begun to show signs of improvement in the past year and a half.

According to Shi, the improvement in China-Japan relations is both a requirement of the shifting international situation and a pragmatic decision from each side. At a time of rising trade protectionism, friendlier bilateral ties and further cooperation are more urgent than ever.

China and Japan are two of the world's top economies. Though affected by the low ebb of political relations in years past, their economic relations have remained close. China is currently the largest trading partner of Japan while Japan is the second largest trading partner of China. In the past several years, while some European and U.S. enterprises have begun to take a negative view of the Chinese market, Japanese investment has increased rapidly. In addition, data from China's customs shows that in the past six years the number of Chinese tourists to Japan has witnessed a spurt in growth. The figure has soared since 2013, with an annual growth of 24 percent. In 2016, more than 6 million Chinese tourists visited Japan with the number reaching 7.3 million in 2017.

"This year marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship. A major target of Premier Li's trip to Japan is to convince the people of both countries of the importance of developing the China-Japan friendship," said Shi.

Li's Japan trip has witnessed the important progress of bilateral relations. During the visit, the two sides have agreed to promote economic cooperation while strengthening political trust and enhancing cooperation across multiple areas. Japan and China have agreed to set up a security hotline to defuse maritime incidents that could ignite tension between the two countries. The negotiation over the hotline was initiated a decade ago but stalled in 2012 after the Japanese Government provoked a territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.

The two sides have also agreed to establish a mechanism to facilitate cooperation in third-party markets so as to boost their international competitiveness. In addition, China has agreed to grant Japan a 200 billion yuan ($31.4 billion) investment quota for the first time to buy Chinese stocks, bonds and other assets.

Li also met with Japanese Emperor Akihito during the trip. Jiang noted that the meeting between Li and Akihito, the symbol of Japan, showed China's goodwill in efforts to improve bilateral ties.

Both Shi and Jiang believe Li's trip will mark a fresh start for China-Japan relations, but they also warn that both sides must adjust their attitude toward the other in order to avoid hurting each other's core interests and causing a retreat of bilateral relations.

To that end, communication and coordination on major policies concerning each other should be further strengthened, Jiang said.

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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