Like many regions of the world, Northeast Asia faces severe political challenges in creating a viable structure of peace. But given China’s rising power, such a regional structure is becoming all the more necessary if today’s lack of trust is not to devolve into military antagonism.

Relations among the region’s three major powers, China, South Korea and Japan, are burdened both by territorial disputes and by the bitter historical legacies of Japanese colonialism.

Of course, economic interdependence has deepened over the past three decades, but nationalism remains a convenient tool for political mobilization — and of manipulation for domestic and diplomatic purposes. Moreover, although the Cold War is two decades in the past, South Korea and China remain divided nations.

Furthermore, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, its economic fragility, and uncertainty about its very future as a state, are causes of deep anxiety among its neighbors. Yet, despite all of these obstacles, there are signs that momentum is building for greater regional cooperation in overcoming them. The recent trilateral summit of China, South Korea, and Japan is the fourth such meeting to be held, in addition to meetings that take place at international gatherings such as the ASEAN summits.

Unfortunately, however, the leaders of China, South Korea, and Japan have not yet made any major breakthrough on the most sensitive security issues that divide them. But this lack of quick success does not mean that these efforts are futile. Indeed, any breakthrough to the sort of trust needed to resolve these festering security disputes will require that the three countries establish their annual gatherings as a meaningful multilateral body in its own right — one that can address major issues in dispute and plan for a better regional future.

For example, at the first trilateral summit, held in May 2008, as the global economic crisis was gathering pace, currency-swap arrangements were agreed upon among the three powers. At the second summit, in May 2009, the three heads of state agreed to start a feasibility study on a trilateral free-trade agreement (FTA). If such a trilateral FTA can be realized, its political and economic significance has the potential to equal that of the creation of European Coal and Steel Community in 1952, the first step in Europe’s integration process.

At last year’s third trilateral summit, the leaders went further still, agreeing to establish a Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat in Seoul for institutionalizing cooperation among the three governments. They also adopted a blue print for cooperation over the next 10 years.

Among the issues discussed at this year’s summit in Tokyo, a few stand out. First, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, President Lee Myung Bak of South Korea, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao agreed to strengthen mutual cooperation on nuclear safety and disaster-relief activities, reflecting the three states’ concerns about how effectively they can cooperate in preventing and confronting a nuclear crisis like the Fukushima disaster.

They also promised to cooperate on development of renewable energy, improvement of energy efficiency, and denuclearization of North Korea. In addition, they agreed to speed up the feasibility study for an FTA. South Korea and China have already finished a feasibility study for a bilateral FTA, and probably will enter into formal negotiations soon.

In the summit’s joint declaration and the three leaders’ remarks at the concluding press conference, one can see China’s clear intention to improve bilateral relations with Japan by promising cooperation on the issue of Japanese imports that might be contaminated by radiation from Fukushima. Such political goodwill is essential for regional stability, particularly given the deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations following last year’s confrontation over the arrest of a Chinese fisherman by Japan’s coast guard.

China’s cooperative approach on Japanese imports was a response to Kan’s ongoing effort to calm international concern about the safety of Japan’s agricultural products. Kan undoubtedly hopes that success in convincing trade partners to lift their bans on such products will boost his exceptionally weak domestic political support.

Lee, meanwhile, sought to bring to the fore the issue of North Korea’s drive for nuclear weapons. Thus, he solicited commitments from China and Japan on denuclearization and realization of the 2005 agreement on North Korea reached by the six-party talks (involving the United States, China, Russia, Japan, North Korea and South Korea).

Though the history of the trilateral dialogue between China, Japan, and South Korea is short, it marks a new and constructive effort toward regional cooperation. This kind of pragmatic and functional approach, if strengthened, promises to generate momentum for cooperation on more sensitive security issues.

At least so far, security relations between South Korea and Japan, both U.S. allies, and China have been more or less confrontational. Strengthening these two countries’ relations with China would increase the possibility of building a new, peaceful order for Northeast Asia. Indeed, measures aimed at creating a climate of genuine trilateral cooperation are the only effective way to improve regional security.

Yoon Young Kwan, South Korea’s foreign minister in 2003-2004, is currently a professor of international relations at Seoul National University. © 2011 Project Syndicate

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