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Japan-China-South Korea Trilateral Summit Meet Holds Promise

Pranamita Baruah is Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • May 26, 2011

    The 4th Japan-China-South Korea tripartite summit was held at Tokyo on May 21-22, 2011. Since the inaugural tripartite meeting was held in the Fukuoka prefecture in December 2008 the three countries have been taking turns to host the summit. Because the previous three summit meetings covered a wide range of world issues, they did not produce any concrete outcome. There was no agreement on North Korea’s nuclear development or on the March and September 2010 incidents involving North Korea. Moreover, although the leaders of the three countries had agreed to set up a permanent secretariat headquartered in Seoul to facilitate trilateral cooperation, it has still not been implemented. The three leaders had also agreed to strengthen mutual understanding and trust, expand cooperation in trade, investment, finance, and environmental protection. Not much progress has been achieved in these areas as well over the past one year.

    The fourth meeting was held in the wake of the nuclear accident in the Fukushima nuclear power plant and the natural disaster in Japan. Prime Minister Kan Naoto proposed to hold the summit in Fukushima to convey the message to the world that Fukushima has already become a safe place. The Japanese government hoped that if the heads of the three countries gather in the crisis-stricken city, radiation fears will be mitigated.1 It was also probably why Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited Fukushima on May 18, a few days before the summit meeting.2 However, due to logistic problems, the meeting could not be held in Fukushima and instead was held in Tokyo.

    While Japan was accused of not providing its neighbours with accurate information when radioactive materials leaked at Fukushima, the summit led to agreement to establish an emergency notification system, enhance cooperation among experts, and share information in the event of emergencies. A leading South Korean English daily, The Dong-A Ilbo, observed in an editorial: “If nuclear power generation is inevitable, its safety should be strengthened and damage in the event of a nuclear accident must be minimised.”3 And it went on to note:

    All of China’s 13 nuclear plants in operation are in its south eastern coastal regions. The country is building 27 such new facilities. If nuclear accidents occur in China, Korea and Japan will be directly affected because wind mostly blows from the west to the east. To uphold the tripartite agreement’s spirit, a concrete cooperation system should be established as soon as possible with Beijing’s active cooperation. In addition to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, China must pay attention to the safety of the North’s nuclear facilities.”4

    After the nuclear accident and the spread of radiation, China had imposed restrictions on food imports from 12 areas of Japan surrounding Fukushima. At the tripartite summit, Premier Wen informed Prime Minister Kan that China will partially ease restrictions on imports of Japanese agricultural products, provided Tokyo ensures their safety. However, the lifting of import restrictions for food was limited to two prefectures -Yamagata and Yamanashi.5 These restrictions did not apply to maritime products, which account for about half of agricultural and maritime imports from Japan. After the leaders tasted fruit and other food items from Fukushima prefecture, the Japanese government seized the opportunity to actively disseminate the information to the world that food in the radiation-stricken area was safe.

    China was, however, unable to make major concessions with regard to food imports from Japan. This is because food safety continues to remain a sensitive issue in China as there are cases of illegal additives being mixed into food products. Despite being wary on the issue, China did decide to relax the import restrictions and waived the need for certificates for radiation testing of food imported from Japan.

    The summit ended with the hope of increased cooperation in East Asia, bolstered popular support for Sino-Japanese friendship, and set out a strategy for maintaining regional peace, stability and prosperity. Unlike the previous three summits, this one turned out to be practical, effective and productive and therefore successful. In particular, the success of the summit was visible in (a) deepening trilateral cooperation, (b) enhancing friendship and boosting bilateral ties and (c) boosting strategic partnership.

    The Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao submitted a seven-point proposal to his South Korean and Japanese counterparts. These included: (i) efforts to support Japan’s post-quake reconstruction; (ii) to give greater importance to nuclear safety and strictly implement the safety guidelines; (iii) to promote practical cooperation for disaster prevention and reduction; (iv) to promote liberalisation and facilitation of trade and push forward integration of regional economy, and start negotiations on a tripartite free trade zone by 2012; (v) to develop renewable energy and popularise energy saving technology; (vi) to speed up construction of demonstration bases for circular in order to promote rational use of resources, protect the environment and realise sustainable development; and (vii) to boost people-to-people and cultural exchanges.6 Wen’s proposal was applauded by Kan and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. In a joint declaration issued after the summit, the three leaders resolved to deepen the future-oriented comprehensive cooperation partnership among the three countries.

    Japan and China will mark the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of their diplomatic relations in 2012. This is a golden opportunity for both the countries to take the bilateral ties forward. Wen’s gesture of visiting the coastal town of Natori and the city of Fukushima after his arrival in Japan to offer condolences to the victims touched many Japanese hearts. With a view to strengthening bilateral friendship, Wen offered to invite 500 students from Japan’s disaster-hit areas to China and start an exchange programme for 4,000 students from each country. On his part, Prime Minister Kan expressed gratitude for the support and assistance rendered by China in the wake of the disasters.7

    As regards China and South Korea President Lee and Premier Wen reached an agreement to strengthen high-level communication and political and strategic trust, and to promote peace, stability and prosperity in the region and the world. Both the leaders agreed to strive for a bilateral trade target of $300 billion by 2015. At the same time, they also underscored the importance of expanding cooperation in new sectors such as energy saving, and environmental protection as well as starting negotiations for a free-trade area to facilitate the free flow of trade and investment. A series of joint events are being planned to mark the 20th anniversary of bilateral ties in 2012.

    On the thorny issue of denuclearising North Korea and resuming the Six-Party Talks, China promised to actively push for peace and dialogue. It is a different matter, however, whether China is sincere about resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.8 At the summit the three leaders expressed apprehensions about the North’s uranium enrichment programme and stressed the importance of creating the conditions for serious inter-Korean dialogue. So long as Beijing continues to protect Pyongyang while urging for a nuclear-free peninsula, it is unlikely that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapon development. The coming months will show the degree of Chinese sincerity in getting North Korea to the negotiating table, which will testify to the real worth of the trilateral summit.