Asian Powers Hold Renewed Talks: A New Start or Same Old?


The seventh foreign ministers' meeting involving China, Japan and South Korea on March 21 attracted much attention for its two ‘firsts’ – the first time since 2012 such a meeting was held, and the first time in five years that a joint press release was issued. The foreign ministers have also pledged to work on resuming the leaders’ Trilateral Summit. Sarah Teo analyses these significant developments in a sub-region troubled with the “Asian paradox,” reflected in the disparity between worsening political-security ties and increasing economic interdependence

The seventh foreign ministers’ meeting involving China, Japan and South Korea on March 21 follows a series of recent developments indicating that relations among the three Northeast Asian powers are looking up. These developments include the hand shake between China’s President Xi Jinping and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the 2014 APEC Summit, South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye’s call to resume the Trilateral Summit at the ensuing ASEAN Plus Three Summit, as well as the holding of China-Japan security talks for the first time in four years in March this year.

These developments are significant in a sub-region troubled with the “Asian paradox,” reflected in the disparity between worsening political-security ties and increasing economic interdependence. With each country being among the top five trading partners of the other two;1 it is not surprising that talks for a trilateral free trade agreement proceeded even as diplomatic relations among the three countries reached a relatively low point between 2012 and 2014. While recent developments suggest that diplomatic ties in Northeast Asia are catching up with the close economic relations, the underlying sources of tensions have not been resolved. The question, therefore, is if this optimistic turn in relations is sustainable.

Functional Cooperation: Starting with Common Interests

As a positive sign that cooperative relations will prevail, common interests among China, Japan and South Korea include the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, the institutionalisation of trilateral economic relations, as well as enhanced cooperation in areas where the three countries can easily come to an agreement, such as disaster management, environment and youth exchange.2 Such functional cooperation focusing on shared goals is a logical starting point for interstate relations which are strategically challenged. After all, even when the meetings involving the three countries’ foreign ministers and leaders failed to take place, it was reportedly business-as-usual for the working-level forums as well as ministerial-level meetings in areas such as environment, disaster management and finance.3

While it is unclear if the goodwill generated from the low-hanging fruits of cooperation played a major role in preventing tensions from escalating into actual conflict, it is hard to argue that such cooperation contributed absolutely nothing to the maintenance of the relatively peaceful status quo. At the very least, communication channels remained open at some level. With the resumption of the foreign ministers’ meeting and the ministers’ pledge to hold the Trilateral Summit as soon as possible, it appears that the worst in Northeast Asian relations is over.

Future Challenges

Amidst these positive indications, however, the sources of tensions plaguing relations among China, Japan and South Korea remain unresolved. These include the disagreements over history, maritime territorial disputes, as well as the Sino-US competition for regional influence – all thorny and politically sensitive issues with dim prospects for resolution.

Historical memory looms large in international relations of Northeast Asia. Two issues stand out in particular, namely the concern from China and South Korea that Japan might seek to remilitarise and assert its former dominance over the region, as well as what Japan’s neighbours perceive as its lack of an adequate apology and compensation to former wartime “comfort women.”4 Even as optimism has arisen following the recent foreign ministers’ meeting, the Chinese and South Korean media have cautioned that improved ties are also dependent on Japan’s satisfactory address of history.5

Maritime territorial disputes – over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands between China and Japan and over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands between Japan and South Korea – have also affected relations. In 2012, Japan’s nationalisation of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands worsened Sino-Japanese relations. China’s establishment of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone a year later appeared to further aggravate tensions with its neighbours. Most recently, South Korea has protested Japan’s intensification of its claim to the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands following the latter’s review of school textbooks. Given that these territories are deemed to be matters of national interest and to some extent political tools of domestic legitimacy, it is unlikely that any country would be willing to negotiate – and risk the appearance of losing their claims – over the sovereignty of the islands.

The perceived competition between the United States and China for regional influence has also complicated the latter’s relations with Japan and South Korea, both of which are traditionally strong US allies. The Chinese media has criticised the US-led alliance system for being “out-dated”6 and “achiev[ing]” nothing but buttressing an unstable status quo,”7 while the United States has expressed concern over Chinese-led institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank posing a challenge to the existing global order. Considering their security dependence on the United States on the one hand and their economic interdependence with China on the other, Japan and South Korea are in a precarious situation of trying to balance relations with both sides. The complex Sino-US relationship, characterised by both cooperation and competition, will no doubt continue to affect relations among Northeast Asian states.

Sustaining Momentum in Dialogue

In light of the politically charged issues among Northeast Asian powers, one way to sustain the recent momentum in dialogue would be to continue focusing on cooperation in non-sensitive areas and side-stepping discussion of contentious issues. Yet, the contentious issues cannot be indefinitely ignored. Without a satisfactory resolution of the disagreements, it seems for now that the resumption of the foreign ministers’ meeting is part of a recurring trajectory characteristic of the situation in Northeast Asia – where relations go through the cyclical ups-and-downs – rather than a genuine fresh start. Even if the Trilateral Summit among the leaders reconvenes, the possibility remains that disagreements over history or territorial sovereignty of the islands could once again derail dialogue.

Another suggestion to ease tensions would be effective management – rather than resolution – of the issues. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Abe has announced plans to express “Japan’s remorse over the war”8 in August, while China will hold a military parade in September. The leaders of the three Northeast Asian countries are likely to adopt a wait-and-see attitude to the Trilateral Summit, with their willingness to meet dependent, in part, on the conduct of remembrance events by other leaders. The leaders would thus have to be mindful of the messages they convey, and calibrate the desired impact of their messages between their respective domestic and foreign audiences.

Both in economic and security terms, Northeast Asia occupies a central position in the larger East Asian9 order. Not only are many of the region’s security flashpoints located in Northeast Asia, China, Japan and South Korea are also the largest, second and fifth largest economies respectively in East Asia. These suggest that developments in Northeast Asia could have an impact beyond the three countries. Consequently, stable Northeast Asian relations would also benefit the wider East Asian region.

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Sarah Teo

Sarah Teo is Associate Research Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Her latest work (co-authored with Ralf Emmers), examining the regional security strategies of Asia-Pacific middle powers, is published in International Relations of the Asia-Pacific.

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    1. People’s Daily, “Top 10 trading partners of the Chinese mainland,” 20 February 2014, accessed 6 April 2015,; Shannon Tiezzi, “China-Japan-South Korea Hold FTA Talks Despite Political Tension,” The Diplomat, 5 March 2014, accessed 6 April 2015,

    2. “Joint Press Release of the Seventh Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Meeting among the Republic of Korea, Japan, and the People’s Republic of China,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea, 21 March 2015, accessed 6 April 2014,

    3. Ibid.

    4. Sarah Teo, “Japan-South Korea Military Cooperation: Implications for Northeast Asia,” RSIS Commentaries No. 115/2012, 4 July 2012, accessed 6 April 2015,; Teo, “Seoul searching for a China–Japan diplomatic balance,” East Asia Forum, 13 December 2014, accessed 6 April 2015,

    5. China Daily, “Facing history squarely prerequisite for better ties,” 23 March 2015, accessed 7 April 2015,; Korea Herald, “Trilateral Summit: Japan must remove obstacle to much-needed meeting,” 23 March 2015, accessed 7 April 2015,

    6. Wang Xiangsui, “No need to learn from old alliance system that already burdens Washington,” Global Times, 9 September2014, accessed 6 April 2015,

    7. Xinhua, “New concept to be proved effective for Asia’s security,” 26 April 2014, accessed 6 April 2015,

    8. The Japan Times, “Abe says statement on 70th anniversary of surrender will express remorse,” 5 January 2015, accessed 7 April 2015,

    9. East Asia is used in this article to encompass both Northeast and Southeast Asia.

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