What’s Next for China-Japan-ROK Trilateral Cooperation?

China's Premier Li Keqiang, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Moon Jae-in
China's Premier Li Keqiang (centre), Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (right) and South Korea's President Moon Jae-in (left). Image: Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat

The year 2020 commenced with a myriad of global occurrences, including the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, bushfire crisis in Australia, volcanic eruption in the Philippines, and recently, the upsurge of novel Coronavirus. Apart from these events, there exists the ongoing trade disputes among key players in the region – the United States and China, Japan and South Korea. These events deliver a coherent message that we are living in the age of uncertainty, which strongly requires effective responses from international, national, and local actors as well as constructive ideas from different stakeholders to maintain the spirit of cooperation.

Back in December 2019, the leaders of the three Asian major powers – China, Japan, and ROK (CJK) – came together at the 8th Trilateral Summit in Chengdu, China in order to exchange their views on the current regional situation and pave the ways for further cooperation. This article argues that the three countries should advance their tripartite cooperation by promoting multi-track aspirations and actions. It focuses on why they should work together and how they can build on the existing institutions and mechanisms.

Why CJK trilateral cooperation matters?

The world is witnessing a new global trend – the decline of the West and the rise of the East. There are some criticisms contending that the dominance power of the United States is declining. For example, Zakaria pointed out that the U.S. is still the most powerful state in the world. However, it could be summoned by other rising powers due to international and domestic factors such as the rise of China and the perception of the leader. During the Trump administration, the U.S. lost global confidence as it pulls itself out of a number of international commitments reinforced by itself. On the European side, the Guardian reported the expectation of collapse of the European Union “within a generation” because of the resurgence of nationalism among member states and economic benefits people gained from the presence of the Union.

This context offers a chance for major Asian powers like CJK to play a proactive role in fostering peace and prosperity at the global and regional level. According to Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS), CJK accounts 23% of global GDP and approximately 20% of global population and global trade volume. In addition, they possess 59.7% of global patent application. On the geopolitics, the two main flashpoints for regional security of Asia – the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea – also locates in Northeast Asia. CJK are one of the major donors of official development assistance (ODA) to several developing countries. These statistics stipulate that CJK can play a constructive and meaningful role for the world and the region.

As CJK have been encountering diverse trans-boundary problems such as fine dust, pandemics, disaster, etc., trilateral cooperation will be a platform for exchanging ideas and sharing practices to overcome the troubles together. Since the first meeting of their leaders at the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 1999, the three countries have intensified the institutionalization of trilateral cooperation by setting up annual summit, twenty-one ministerial meetings and more than seventy consultative mechanisms, business forums, media forums, etc. Moreover, CJK inaugurated the TCS to facilitate related mechanisms and promote understanding of cooperation. The TCS also aims to conduct research necessary for policy implementation and international networking.

At the 8th Trilateral Summit in 2019, the leaders discussed a number of ongoing issues. Among those, the core issue was how to deal with North Korea. As U.S.-North Korea relations have deteriorated last year, especially over denuclearization, CJK have made up their minds to better the situation and emphasized the importance of closer communication for the “common interest” of China, ROK, and Japan. Meanwhile, South Korea-Japan relationship came to the surface during the Summit. Seoul and Tokyo have agreed on the need to solve lengthened trade dispute, on-going conflict since 2019. This talk was remarkable because it was the first bilateral meeting in fifteen months. In spite of the current highest tensions, having “being U.S. allies” in common, both Seoul and Tokyo are on the same page in mending this issue. The role of China in bringing the two quarreling neighbors together paved the way for de-escalation of the conflict.

Enhancing multi-track aspirations and actions

In addition to the abovementioned topics, the leaders concurred on the “Trilateral Cooperation Vision for the Next Decade,” outlining the objectives of the cooperation comprising; to boost their own efforts to enhance the bond between the three countries for better trilateral cooperation, to develop long-term relations of peace and friendship based on political mutual trust, to support and advocate win-win cooperation for higher profile of CJK, to pioneer in technology in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, to enhance regional connectivity, to stress the significance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to promote mutual learning in culture and people-to-people exchange, and to achieve common development of the three neighbors, which will transform in the form of “Trilateral +X” joint cooperation.

To accomplish these goals, this article argues that CJK should enhance multi-track aspirations and actions by implementing the following 3Es.

(1) Establish a regular consultation between TCS and other international/regional organizations to nurture regional peace in East Asia

In the authors’ opinion, dialogue is a basis for solving any conflicts and disputes. We realize that CJK have shared various interests and values, particularly preservation of international peace and prosperity. However, there might be some different views and ways to attain the goals. For example, the three countries consider nuclear North Korea as a threat but they frame the issue separately. Japan has taken a hardline stance by monitoring North Korea’s illicit activities seriously and imposing sanctions while South Korea prefers softer stance. In his 2020 New Year’s Address, President Moon Jae-in believed that engagement policy via a number of inter-Korean projects could formulate a conducive environment to deal with North Korea more properly. In case of China, it would favor denuclearized North Korea but worry of regime collapse because it could trigger a large-scale influx of refugees to China. Discussions with international/regional organizations such as UN, EU, and ASEAN would widen their perspectives.

(2) Ensure mutual prosperity in East Asia via division of labor among CJK

Additionally, the three countries have accomplished impressive political and economic developments. They can generate their experiences as lessons learned for many developing countries. The authors opine that CJK represent dissimilar conditions and pathways toward national development. This point could be a key message to the world. Simultaneously, CJK are leading countries in technological development and digital transformation. Not only being a role model but also seeking investment opportunities in developing countries could be their priorities. CJK should work together with ASEAN and other partners to underpin sustainable development. As Anantasirikiat noted, the three countries should proceed with division of labor in order to reduce cost and keep away from redundancy of project implementation. It is likely that this principle is settled in the latest concept of Trilateral +X cooperation.

(3) Embrace multi-stakeholder approach within CJK for effective implementation of Vision for the Next Decades

Not only agendas or issues but also modalities of working together are essential to successful implementation of Vision for the Next Decade. As already mentioned, the institutionalization of trilateral cooperation has a significant progress by inaugurating basic mechanisms for decision-making and implementation. To ensure the effective and sustainable implementation, CJK should engage assorted stakeholders. According to TCS, there are twenty-seven areas of trilateral cooperation. Some areas might be intertwined with others. Besides, each issue consists of a number of actors. Therefore, the authors think that only government sector is not sufficient to address the problems. The role of private and voluntary sectors is also necessary for financial support and the creation of accountability as we are all responsible for our world and society.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.


Seksan Anantasirikiat is a researcher at KlangPanya Institute for National Strategies, Thailand.

Elena Dayoung Park is a student of Political Science and International Relations, Dankook University, ROK.