The 7th Trilateral Ministers' Meeting
Implications for Regional Cooperation in Northeast Asia

by Julia Oh
March 27, 2015

Julia Oh, Atlas Corps Fellow for Political and Security Affairs at NBR, analyzes the outcomes and the implications of the 7th Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, held on March 21 in Seoul.

Last week, the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) forecasted potential issues to be discussed at the 7th Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, held on March 21 in Seoul and chaired by Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and his counterparts Fumio Kishida of Japan and Wang Yi of China. The meeting was significant as the first high-level gathering of the three Northeast Asian countries since April 2012. Furthermore, considering there has not been a bilateral dialogue between South Korean president Park Geun-hye and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, the meeting provided an important opportunity for the two countries to share views on security, the economy, and cooperation through not only trilateral discussions but also bilateral ones.

Trilateral Cooperation

According to the joint press statement following the trilateral meeting, the three countries held in-depth conversations about various cooperation projects. Notably, they decided to continuously promote 50 intergovernmental consultative mechanisms and positively reviewed a number of ongoing trilateral ministerial meetings on the environment, public health, and disaster management. They also committed to make further efforts toward the trilateral free trade agreement negotiations that opened in 2013.

Kishida and Wang both welcomed the ROK’s “Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative,” a cohesive effort to build peace in the Northeast Asian region that was proposed by President Park in 2013. The three ministers developed the idea by resuming dialogues in various areas such as counterterrorism, cyber policy, and air pollution.

The meeting also touched on the core security concern of the region: North Korea’s developing nuclear weapons capability. The three countries addressed the possibility of resuming the six-party talks, last held in 2007, to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

History Issues

Despite progress in a variety of areas, the three ministers could not agree on all issues of concern. According to Chosun Ilbo, the trilateral meeting was delayed for an hour due to tensions between China and Japan surrounding bilateral historical issues. Minister Wang stated at a post-meeting press conference, “The war has been over for 70 years, but the problem with history remains a present issue, not an issue of the past.”

China’s ongoing raising of bilateral historical issues of contention at the meeting seems designed to frame an upcoming speech that Prime Minister Abe intends to give before the U.S. Congress in April. Considering that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, China and the ROK repeatedly called for Japan to recognize its wartime past and expressed hope that Japan would make progress on this issue. However, it is unclear whether Tokyo will change its views in the short term and address the historical issues at Prime Minister Abe’s forthcoming speech. Even domestic opposition to his policy has been neutralized following the positive evaluation of Abenomics and the result of the election in 2014, in which these issues did not significantly affect Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party.

Yet an ROK press statement released after a bilateral meeting with Japan indicated that there has been some progress. The statement recognized 2015 as the 50th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral relations and discussed the sensitive issue of sexual slavery during World War II.

Terminal High Altitude Area Defense

China did not express concern over Washington’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in the ROK. THAAD is a defensive system that the United States is planning to install in South Korea to intercept potential ballistic missile attacks by North Korea. The lack of concern is unexpected, as China has previously objected to the AN/TPY-2 radar embedded in the system, arguing that it will be used for surveillance of Chinese military activities.

While surprising, Beijing’s silence on this issue does not mean that it will necessarily accept the deployment. There are various diplomatic implications. China seems to be pursuing a two-track strategy, given that Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao expressed concern over this issue on March 17. The ROK strongly reacted to that statement and emphasized the significance of sovereignty on the THAAD issue for national security. It is therefore possible that Beijing recognized that continued pressure is counterproductive.

In addition, addressing THAAD at this meeting could have resulted in the isolation of China from Japan and the ROK, two of Washington’s closest allies. To make progress on the historical issues with Japan, China needs to cooperate with the ROK while pressing Tokyo. Last, the ROK has a legitimate reason for deploying THAAD to prevent provocative North Korean measures, while China has little to worry about in this regard.

Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

China extended invitations to not only the ROK but also Japan to join the proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The AIIB will finalize its founding member applications by the end of this month and hopes to start negotiations and documentation by June and open at the end of 2015.

On Thursday, March 26, the ROK sent a letter of intention to join the AIIB. The decision was expected considering the country’s important trade relationship with China. China accounts for 25% of the ROK’s exports, whereas the United States accounts for only 10%. European countries’ recent participation in the AIIB, which carries potential economic benefits, gives some level of legitimacy to the ROK’s decision to join.

There is concern that if both Japan and the ROK join the AIIB, a diplomatic rift with Washington could occur. The ROK’s announcement to join the AIIB so close to the end of the application period indicates its careful position regarding the relationship with the United States. But considering several European countries, including the United Kingdom and Germany, joined the AIIB, the decision will unlikely affect the ROK’s relationship with the United States in the short term.

The United States, for its part, remains concerned over standards for awarding contracts due to governance and human rights issues. However, it has said that membership in the AIIB is a sovereign decision.

It is still unclear whether Tokyo will join this China-led institution, but Minister Kishida did not completely close the door at the meeting. Both China and the United States account for roughly the same percentage of Japan’s exports (18%).

Plans for a Future Trilateral Summit

The statement of the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs addressed the interim plan to hold the next dialogue between Prime Minister Abe, President Xi Jinping, and President Park at “the earliest convenient time for the three countries.” However, Minister Wang highlighted the resolution of historical issues as a condition of the leaders partaking in another summit. Thus, a clearer picture of prospects for a subsequent meeting will likely emerge after Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the United States. While informal meetings could take place at upcoming Victory Day celebrations in Russia and China, it is unlikely that Japan will attend either event.

Julia Oh is an Atlas Corps Fellow for Political and Security Affairs at NBR.