China, Japan, South Korea "Restore" Relations at Trilateral Meet

5 November 2015

China, Japan, and South Korea have agreed to resume regular trilateral meetings – and ramp up discussions for a trade pact between them – after the countries’ leaders held their first summit in more than three years in Seoul on Sunday.

“The trilateral cooperation mechanism is back on track,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced at the summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. The three leaders reportedly agreed to move forward on trade negotiations, expand exchange programmes, and resume multi-party talks on North Korea's nuclear activities.

The three Asian economic giants have been involved in various heated territorial and historical disputes in recent years, which have imposed a significant strain on diplomatic ties and threatened possible efforts for increased economic cooperation.

In their remarks to reporters, the leaders did not address whether they had made any advances in some of the thornier issues between the three countries, such as the China-Japan dispute over the control of a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, or South Korea and China's charge about Japan attempting to cover up atrocities from the Second World War. (See Bridges Weekly, 17 October 2012)

Parallel negotiations

At the summit, the three leaders agreed to make “further efforts towards the acceleration of the trilateral FTA negotiations,” which had been launched in 2012 but had seen slow progress since as regional tensions worsened. (See Bridges Weekly, 16 May 2012)

South Korean and Chinese leaders also pledged last Saturday to push for the ratification of the China-South Korea free trade deal – reached a year ago and signed this June – so that the pact can be put into effect by the end of the year. The deal will lead to Seoul eliminating tariffs on 79 percent of imported Chinese products, while Beijing will remove tariffs on 71 percent of South Korean goods during its first decade in force. These numbers will rise to 92 and 91 percent, respectively, two decades in. (See Bridges Weekly, 26 February 2015)

The potential ratification of the China-South Korea deal will likely be an incentive to speed up trilateral talks including Japan, analysts say. The three countries combined make up one-fifth of global GDP.

The relationship between these trade initiatives and other regional deals recently concluded or under negotiation is another key question, including how these will affect trade advantages and flows. Japan is part of the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, with negotiations on that pact having concluded last month and now heading toward the signing and ratification stages. (See Bridges Weekly, 8 October 2015)

Neither South Korea nor China are TPP participants, though Seoul has indicated that it may pursue membership in the pact, pledging closer cooperation with the US in this regard. South Korea has bilateral free trade agreements with all except two of the TPP parties. (See Bridges Weekly, 22 October 2015)

Meanwhile, all three countries are involved in the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which also includes the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as India, Australia, and New Zealand. 

The latest round of RCEP talks, meanwhile, took place in in Busan, South Korea last month to discuss market access on goods and services. At the Seoul summit, Park told reporters that Japan, Seoul, and Beijing “agreed to work together for the conclusion of the RCEP.”

ICTSD reporting;  “China, Japan and South Korea relations ‘completely restored’ after summit,” CNN, 3 November 2015; “S Korea, Japan, and China agree to restore trade ties,” AL JAZEERA, 1 November 2015; “China, Japan, South Korea Skirt Sensitive Subjects,” WALL STREET JOURNAL, 1 November 2015; “Spotlight: China, Japan, South Korea embracing fresh opportunities to promote FTA process,” XINHUANET, 28 October 2015; “South Korea frets as TPP erodes trade advantage over Japan,” FINANCIAL TIMES, October 6 2015; “China-backed trade pact playing catch-up after U.S.-led TPP deal,” REUTERS, 10 October 2015.

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