GT Voice: Innovative ways needed to move China-Japan-S.Korea trilateral cooperation forward

Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

While external forces have complicated relations among China, Japan and South Korea, the new challenges facing regional economic development have also spurred them to seek new avenues for cooperation in the current global political and economic landscape. This has been a key factor in the increasing signs of warming trilateral cooperation.

The Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Japan Business Federation and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade plan to co-host a trilateral business summit later this month in Seoul, the Yonhap News Agency reported on Monday. 

The gathering has been held since 2009 with the goal of expanding Northeast Asian economic cooperation and exchanges. Most recently, the event was held in 2019 in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China’s Sichuan Province.

Although the resumption of the gathering has not been officially confirmed, the eagerness of South Korea to advance trilateral cooperation is palpable. However, the future of trilateral cooperation will ultimately depend on the determination of Japan and South Korea to expand their cooperation and their ability to resist pressure from the US.

There is no question that China, Japan and South Korea possess the necessary foundation for economic and trade cooperation. Enhancing economic cooperation among the three countries is not only essential for regional development, but will also be crucial in promoting peace and prosperity in East Asia and globally. However, it is geopolitical factors, rather than economic considerations, that have impeded their collaboration.

As a result of the recent “decoupling” push by the US, Japan and South Korea, as key Asian allies of the US, have aligned their stance with the US on various issues, including taking a tough approach toward China in areas such as supply chains, science and technology. However, this misjudgment has had a significant impact on their own economies and trade.

For instance, South Korea’s exports decreased 7.4 percent year-on-year in 2023, and it also recorded a trade deficit of $18 billion with China in 2023, its first such bilateral shortfall with China in 31 years, according to media reports.

Facing growing economic pressure and risks from following the US “decoupling” push, Japan and South Korea appear to be reassessing the significance of their relationships with China and are more inclined to enhance communication with China. 

However, to achieve effective trilateral communication and cooperation, Japan and South Korea need not only to demonstrate sincerity in improving relations, but more importantly, the three parties need to find innovative ways to collaborate amid the US push for “decoupling” and “breaking chains,” as failure to do so will result in consequences for all parties involved.

Enhancing mutual trust and promoting cooperation can only be achieved through the establishment of more frequent dialogue and communication mechanisms. In order to resist US pressure, China, Japan and South Korea could lessen their reliance on a single external market by enhancing cooperation within a multilateral framework. One way to achieve this is by expediting negotiations for the China-Japan-South Korea free trade agreement to broaden collaboration in trade, investment, technology exchanges and environmental protection. Additionally, cooperation could be bolstered within the ASEAN plus China, Japan and South Korea mechanism to promote the growth of the entire region.

In terms of mitigating risks, China, Japan and South Korea could focus on diversifying their supply chains by identifying alternative sources and improving the connectivity of their internal supply chains. 

Additionally, they can address external pressures through policy coordination and information sharing, while also fostering cultural and talent exchanges to seek mutually beneficial solutions that uphold their respective national interests.

Moreover, the three can strengthen cooperation in some non-sensitive or non-strategic areas, such as environmental protection, climate change, renewable energy and public health.

Only by working together can the three countries achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. There is no alternative. Despite the challenges, it is crucial to resist the pressure by the US as a way to promote cooperation and avoid losses by the three parties. As East Asia remains the most vital engine of the global economy, the way in which these three countries collaborate will significantly influence global development.