Solving regional issues step by step
Sabers rattled as each country dispatched ships around the islands and jets to demonstrate airspace superiority. In January, a Chinese warship reportedly locked radar on a Japanese helicopter in the area, while in March another Chinese naval vessel apparently did the same to a nearby Japanese frigate.
Such knife-edge situations can be expected to occur again following China’s unilateral establishment in November of an expanded air defense identification zone. This ADIZ, which is not recognized by Tokyo or Seoul, covers both the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the submerged rock Ieodo, controlled by South Korea but claimed by China as a part of its exclusive economic zone.
Periodic diplomatic efforts by Seoul and Tokyo last year to claim and counterclaim legitimate ownership of the Dokdo islets continued to poison dialogue. And Japan’s insistence on publishing school textbooks asserting its sovereignty over the islets were unhelpful, while South Korea’s occasional political stunts to reinforce its de facto control over them just fueled the fire.
Beyond the flare-ups of maritime territorial disputes, lingering historical issues have also damaged diplomatic relations among the three nations. The return to power of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party has ushered in a renewed phase of revisionism on such issues as Japan’s forcible recruitment of sex slaves during World War II and the Nanking Massacre. Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine last December not only enraged China and South Korea, but also provides a cover of legitimacy to political elites in both countries who whip up nationalist sensibilities for their own ends. For instance, a new exhibit in Harbin, China, celebrating Ahn Jung-geun’s 1909 assassination of the Japanese prime minister has been widely interpreted as anti-Japanese.
This year has hardly seen improvement, as President Park Geun-hye icily refused overtures to meet - or even shake hands publicly - with Abe at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In fact, one of the major story lines at Davos was that Northeast Asia resembled Europe on the eve of World War I. It is worrisome that China is engaged in a massive military build-up, that Japan’s government seems determined to change its pacifist Constitution and that South Korea has a very complex web of relationships to balance. And of course the aforementioned tensions don’t even factor in the possibility that Pyongyang could spark this tinderbox.
Yet the prospects for regional cooperation among South Korea, China and Japan have seen glimmers of hope. Surprisingly, security is an area where we can envision trilateral collaboration. The most noteworthy case is the ongoing coordination of Chinese, Japanese and South Korean navies to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden. The three Northeast Asian regional powers have been working together successfully to carry out closely coordinated, rotating patrols. Beyond reducing piracy on commercial shipping in a crucial trade corridor, the counter-piracy effort fosters cultural exchange among the region’s navies and fosters their maritime security expertise.
This is a model of trilateral cooperation. The trick now is to use it as a stepping-stone to other cooperative endeavors. Certainly the most politically sensitive security domains are off the table for now: North Korea, cybersecurity, maritime disputes. But human security issues, health security issues and environmental security issues provide plenty of low-hanging fruit ripe for cooperation among South Korea, China and Japan.
Fortunately, a permanent venue for cooperation along these lines already exists: the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat. This institution was founded by agreement of the three countries’ leaders in 2008 at the Asean+3 Summit. The office of the Secretariat is located in Seoul and coordinates action in the partnership’s fields: politics and security, economy, sustainable development and environmental protection, and human and cultural exchange.
Although the Secretariat has had modest results until now, its raison d’etre is bold: it seeks to institutionalize cooperation in order to build trust among its partner states, rather than making trust a requirement for initiating cooperation.
Cooperation in general requires political will, and the Secretariat in particular is only as powerful as the leaders backing it. It is time for President Park, General Secretary Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Abe to finally show some leadership and get past the nationalism that is souring Northeast Asian cooperation. A good start would be energizing regional security cooperation under the auspices of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat.
*The author is associate professor of politics in the Graduate School of International and Area Studies, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
By Mason Richey