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Repairing the tripartite ties

by Shinji Fukukawa

Japan’s relations with China and South Korea are at their lowest ebb since Japan normalized its diplomatic relations with them. In the recent past, this country has occasionally been at odds with the two countries over such problems as history textbooks and Japanese government leaders’ visits to Yasukuni Shrine — a reminder of Japan’s wartime militarism — but each time they avoided the worst situation through diplomatic efforts.

But after the Chinese government fiercely reacted to the action taken by the Japanese government in September 2012 to nationalize the contentious Senkaku Islands, among other things, their bilateral top-level exchanges were terminated. Then South Korea reemphasized its sovereignty over the disputed Takeshima islets and dredged up the problems of “comfort women” and requisitioned workers, deepening confrontation with Japan.

The two countries, linking these problems with Japan’s war responsibility and militarization, have been intensifying their diplomatic campaigns against Japan in the United States and elsewhere abroad.

On top of that, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26, on the first anniversary of his Cabinet’s inauguration, drawing strong protests from the two countries. Present circumstances do not permit Japan to hold summit talks with the two countries’ leaders.

The U.S., concerned about the impact of rising regional tensions on its Asia policy, urges Japan to improve its ties with China and South Korea. EU and ASEAN nations have also expressed concern.

Although nongovernmental exchanges are apparently going on in business, cultural affairs and tourism, the situation has had a serious psychological impact on people in the two countries. If matters are left unattended, mutual distrust might increase to the point of triggering a crisis.

According to an opinion survey conducted last summer by The Genron nonprofit organization, 90.1 percent of Japanese polled had unfavorable impressions of China, and 92.8 percent of Chinese polled had unfavorable feelings toward Japan — a confrontational attitude not seen in the past.

For about 1½ years from 1978, I served as secretary to the late Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira. As foreign minister, he had made valuable efforts, along with then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, to normalize Sino-Japanese relations. He thus won strong trust from the Chinese. In December 1979, Ohira gave a speech titled “China-Japan Relations Aimed at the New Century —In Search of Depth and Breadth” in Beijing and received great applause.

In his speech, he warned: “Any attempt to build up various aspects of China-Japan relations merely based on a temporary mood and emotional intimacy, furthered merely by economic interests and calculations, would end up as something frail and fragile after all like a castle in the sand.” The latest situation appears to have proved his warning correct.

In the past, Germany and France repeatedly went to war, including two world wars in the 20th century. But with a strong resolve not to repeat past mistakes, they launched the European Economic Community with other countries under the Treaty of Rome of 1957, then pushed the process further to create the European Union under the Maastricht Treaty of 1993. Their achievement symbolizes the progress of reason and wisdom. We should emulate the modesty expressed by the Germans and the power of reason demonstrated by the Europeans in Northeast Asia as well.

At the request of the late Keizo Obuchi, who became prime minister in July 1998, I began, along with several business leaders, the groundwork to create a forum of business people from Japan, China and South Korea that would help lead to summit talks among the three countries’ leaders. This process met with some difficulty initially because the Chinese side stuck to a cautious attitude, but we finally arrived at the stage for formulating a framework for joint studies by nongovernmental research organizations of the three countries. This led to the start of work to evaluate and strengthen cooperative three-way economic relations.

The results of the efforts were reported every year to tripartite summit talks and highly valued. Obuchi died in April 2000, but the joint-study activities continued thereafter and helped concretize the idea of a trilateral free trade agreement. (I have since continued to call for an early conclusion of the trilateral FTA talks.)

At that time, the Japanese government, laying stress on the new round of talks under the auspices of the World Trade Organization, was reluctant to form a regional FTA and tended to give priority to holding FTA talks between Japan and South Korea if the FTA issue should be addressed.

It has been reported that although China at the 2004 Japan-China summit proposed to set about intergovernmental studies on a tripartite FTA, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi rejected it as premature. It is only since 2010 that the issue of a tripartite FTA has been taken up as the subject of government-led studies.

Under the present circumstances, it is quite unlikely that a Japan-China-South Korea FTA would develop into a regional integration as happened in Europe. But if the framework of an FTA is created, regional mutual trust would rapidly recover and mutual exchanges expand.

At present, Japan’s government-level exchanges with China and South Korea remain suspended. But the undeniable fact is that both the Chinese and South Korean sides are still continuing consultations related to the FTA issue.

There have been strong calls for a trilateral FTA in the private sectors of the three countries. There is no denying that this factor should have a favorable impact on the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. I have continued nongovernmental activities to help facilitate intergovernmental FTA negotiations — based on the Japan-China Organization for Business, Academic and Governmental Partnership, and in cooperation with the China Center for International Economic Exchanges and the Korea International Trade Association. I strongly hope for an early conclusion of a tripartite FTA.

Japan, for its part, should endeavor to seek China’s and South Korea’s understandings for the need of a tripartite FTA, while preventing an unexpected situation from happening and making efforts to continue and expand multilateral exchanges in business, cultural affairs and tourism. A Japan-China-South Korea FTA should be the first constructive step in light of the European experience.

Shinji Fukukawa, formerly vice minister of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) and president of Dentsu Research Institute, is currently a senior adviser at the Global Industrial and Social Progress Research Institute.