Northeast Asia is a strange place. With the exception of the hermit kingdom, North Korea, the region is home to one of the world’s most prosperous and technologically advanced nations. While Japan has been a global economic engine for decades, the likes of South Korea and Taiwan arguably represent history’s greatest economic miracles.
As for China, which is poised to become the world’s largest economy (in nominal dollars) in the coming years, its turbo-charged economic development has transformed an isolated nation into a world factory, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty within a single generation. The region is widely seen as a beacon of successful capitalism.
While Northeast Asia increasingly resembles the West in terms of wealth and technological prowess, it is also a place filled with deep-seated mutual animosity, historical grievances, territorial disputes, arms build-up and relentless jostling in almost every field of competition.
|Leaders of China, S Korea and Japan meet in Seoul|
Northeast Asia is at once both Europe and the Middle East, a theatre of prosperity and conflict. In an attempt to steer the region away from confrontation, the leaders of Japan, China, and South Korea recently met for the first time in more than three years.
The historic trilateral summit saw Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, and Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president, triumphantly declaring that their long-fraught relations have been “completely restored”.
At the heart of their discussion was the necessity to find a common ground on economic cooperation and historical grievances, notwithstanding their long-standing differences on territorial issues.
In his latest book, World Order, Henry Kissinger perspicaciously observes that Asia is filled with highly ambitious nations, with each “convinced that it is ‘rising’, it operates with the conviction that the world has yet to affirm its full deserved role.”
The greater objective is that institutionalised interaction and deeper cooperation in low-politics areas will eventually translate into decreased territorial tensions and prevention of conflict in one of the world’s most dynamic and volatile regions.
In a region of hyper-competitiveness, “the simultaneous pursuit of so many programmes of national prestige-building introduces a measure of volatility to the regional order”.
Kissinger’s description aptly captures the essence of inter-state relations in Northeast Asia. Almost all the three major protagonists, Japan, South Korea, and China, have been constantly searching for their place in the sun, trying to out-compete each other in every major field of innovation and development.
Throughout the Cold War period, capitalist Tokyo and Seoul stood against Communist Beijing and Pyongyang. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the gradual integration of China into the world economy, South Korea progressively gravitated towards its giant continental neighbour. While Seoul is part of the US-Japan-Korea trilateral alliance, it considers China as its major trading partner.
Back in 1991, Japan accounted for almost a quarter of South Korea’s total trade. Now, the figure stands at only 8 percent. In contrast, the same period saw China’s share of South Korea’s total trade jumping from 4 percent to a whopping 21 percent. South Korea is gradually being integrated into a Sino-centric economic order in Asia.
A game of thrones
Over the years, amid a rise in popular nationalism, South Korea and China have also found a common ground vis-a-vis Imperial Japan’s historical atrocities. Both countries have consistently criticised what they perceive to be bouts of historical revisionism and lack of sincere apology on the part of Japan.
Astonishingly, as military historian Edward Luttwak argues, South Korea “remains obsessed with an utterly unthreatening Japan and has been purchasing air power to contend with imagined threats from Tokyo as opposed to the real ones just north of the demilitarised zone”. A flurry of recent Korean blockbuster movies has focused on the Korean Kingdom’s historical battles with Japan.
Meanwhile, Japan has maintained strong ties with its former colony, Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. To Beijing’s consternation, Japan recently hosted Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, who is poised to become the island nation’s new leader – and has been strongly criticised by China as a potential troublemaker.
Since 2010, Sino-Japanese disputes in the East China Sea have inched closer to direct confrontation, while South Korea and China have been quietly fighting over disputed features in the Yellow Sea. Japan and South Korea continue to argue over the ownership of the Dokdo/Takeshima islets in the area, while Seoul has been pushing to rename the Sea of Japan as the East Sea.
Intent on arresting a downward spiral in their relations, leaders of Japan, South Korea, and China have finally signalled their willingness to find a common ground, enhancing regional integration and avoiding all-out conflict over their myriad of territorial disputes and historical grievances.
Encouraged by the Obama administration, which was particularly perturbed by President Park’s decision to attend China’s controversial grand parade, Tokyo and Seoul have moved a step closer to resolving their bilateral disputes. Abe and Park agreed to intensify their efforts to resolve their differences over the “comfort women” issue, which has been a source of constant bilateral friction.
Together with China, the three Northeast Asian powers also agreed to further cooperation on North Korea, which has become increasingly volatile and menacing in recent years. Despite their varying threat perceptions vis-a-vis the hermit kingdom, all of them share a common interest in containing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and preventing a military showdown on the Korean Peninsula.
There were also discussions on how to enhance economic ties among three similarly export-oriented industrial nations. The decision of the three leaders to regularise the trilateral summit underscores their shared interest in maintaining robust, high-level communications channels as well as in deepening regional integration.
The greater objective is for institutionalised interaction and deeper cooperation in low-politics areas to eventually translate into decreased territorial tensions and prevention of conflict in one of the world’s most dynamic and volatile regions.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.