East Asia Summit Diplomacy: Time for Progress
By: John Schaus
The recently announced summit among Japan, South Korea, and China is an important and overdue step toward reducing tensions in East Asia. The last trilateral meeting was in 2012. Since that time, tensions between China and Japan have risen significantly over China’s actions in Japanese-administered islands (Japan’s view), and Japan’s “wrong view of history” regarding both the ownership of the islands and its position on sex-crimes committed during World War II (China’s view).
Korea has not escaped rising tensions, either. As South Korea seeks to ensure its security against an aggressive and unpredictable North Korea, the United States has worked with South Korea to deploy a THAAD battery—a groundbased missile defense capability to intercept missiles at high altitude. Curiously, China has been outspoken against South Korea hosting this defensive capability. And Korea’s longstanding concerns (aligned with China’s) that Japan has not adequately understood or atoned for its acts in World War II continues to be a major point of division between two important U.S. allies in Asia.
Beyond security, there are important economic reasons for leaders of the three nations to meet. Japan and Korea have embarked on a robust program of quantitative easing—printing money by another name—that has sharply decreased the value of their currencies while simultaneously increasing the competitiveness of their exports. By contrast, China is struggling to maintain the value of the RMB, delicately balancing the need to spur exports (which benefit from a cheaper currency) with the need to enable its banks and companies to repay debts denominated in foreign currencies (which benefit from a stronger currency).
Just as countries throughout Asia seek signs of positive relations between China and the United States to provide reassurance that the region is not being pushed toward conflict, so too with relations among Japan, South Korea, and China. As the summit approaches, it will be important for these nations’ leaders to create political space for cooperation, rather than take the largely zero-sum approaches seen now.