or a long time, the relationship between China, Japan, and South Korea has been likened to that of the three rival ancient kingdoms that divided China during the legendary Three Kingdoms (220–280) period. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a 14th-century Chinese novel, captured the fascinating tales of the period and has remained an all-time classic in the three countries.
As top leaders from the three countries gathered in Chengdu, capital of China’s Sichuan Province, which was once the ancient capital of Shu, one of the three historical kingdoms, to hold the eighth trilateral summit on December 24, it rekindled references to the period when the three states vied for supremacy.
The complexity of the trilateral relationship between China, Japan and South Korea can be traced back hundreds of years. Following episodes of wars and alliances between the three countries in ancient times, the modern history of East Asia saw Japan colonize Korea, and invade and occupy much of China. In the Korean War (1950-1953), Korea was split into two opposing states, with China siding with North Korea to fight against an alliance led by the US with South Korea and Japan on its side.
While the animosity between the two sides persisted during the Cold War, Japan and South Korea experienced rapid economic development. After the Cold War, China shifted its focus to economic growth and normalized ties with Japan and South Korea, along with the US. In the past decades, the three countries have established strong economic ties.
But as China became the world’s fastest-rising major power, in contrast to the relative decline of Japan, whose once powerful semi-conductor industry is starting to feel the heat from both China and South Korea, historical feuds and strategic considerations started to re-emerge to undermine their economic ties.
As the three countries started to engage in talks for a free trade agreement in 2012, the trilateral cooperation appeared to suddenly collapse as historical and territorial disputes resurfaced, dominating diplomatic exchanges.
But as all three now face challenges at home and abroad amid the ongoing China-US trade war and the resulting global economic slowdown, they have taken steps to jump-start trilateral cooperation.
In a meeting on the sidelines of the Chengdu summit with the business community on December 24, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that the three countries should avoid emulating the “fighting and scheming” and the “intrigue and deceit” of the Three Kingdoms, but should adopt the “wisdom and integrity” that was also manifested in the legendary tales.
During the summit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also made the same historical reference, saying that the three countries are not rivals as the three kingdoms were. Abe then called on the three countries to forge a new era of cooperation, which he called a “new three kingdom era.” South Korean President Moon Jae-in adopted a similar tone, saying that the three countries shared the same dream of promoting a sustainable world.
In the run-up and the aftermath of the trilateral meeting, all three countries appear to have taken measures to de-escalate their disputes. Since Shinzo Abe’s ice-breaking trip to Beijing in October 2018, the first visit by a Japanese prime minister since the relationship nosedived following Japan’s 2012 nationalization of the disputed Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, the bilateral relationship between China and Japan has somewhat recovered.
On December 19, 2019, a few days prior to the summit, China said it lifted an 18-year ban on beef imported from Japan. Restrictions on Japanese pork and mutton were also lifted. The moves are seen as a gesture of goodwill on the part of China.
In the meantime, there are signs that the tension between Tokyo and Seoul has also de-escalated in recent weeks. Abe and Moon held a meeting on the sidelines of the trilateral summit, the first meeting between the two in 15 months.
Tension had been building since Seoul reneged on an unpopular 2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea after Moon assumed the presidency in 2017 over the issue regarding so-called “comfort women,” sex slaves forced to work in Japan’s wartime military brothels. In the autumn of 2018, the bilateral relationship plunged further after South Korea’s Supreme Court handed down rulings ordering Japanese companies to compensate Korean forced laborers and “comfort women” during Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
In July 2019, the diplomatic fallout eventually led Japan to impose export controls on materials used in South Korea’s semi-conductor industry and it removed Seoul from its “white list” of trusted trade partners, which triggered a similar reaction from the Blue House. Seoul also announced that it would terminate an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan. But in November 2019, Seoul opted to continue the pact with Tokyo, allegedly following intervention from the US.
On its part, Japan announced days prior to the trilateral summit on December 20, 2019, that it would ease curbs on exports of photoresists, which were one of the three semiconductor materials subjected to strict export controls. A week later on December 27, South
Korea’s Constitutional Court rejected a petition to repeal the 2015 deal signed between Tokyo and Seoul regarding Japan’s wartime atrocities.
During the summit, the three countries released a document outlining their vision for trilateral cooperation in the next decade, vowing to improve cooperation in multiple areas. The three leaders also agreed to jointly push for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an expansive multilateral trade deal spanning the Asia-Pacific. Fifteen countries including ASEAN countries, Australia and New Zealand will likely sign the deal in 2020, though India refused to join the pact in late 2019.
The trio also reiterated their commitment to working more closely together to speed up negotiations on the free trade agreement. In 2018, the combined GDP of the three countries surpassed that of the European Union, and as trilateral trade reaches more than US$720 billion, the free trade deal would create a free trade zone that includes 24 percent of global trade. But for most analysts, despite the three countries’ efforts to smooth over their disputes during the summit, the prospect of a free trade agreement remains a distant possibility as there is still a lack of political trust between the countries.
Between Japan and South Korea, for example, the tension regarding historical issues is far from over. While Moon continues to demand Japan drop export controls on all semi-conductor materials, Abe insists that it was Seoul’s responsibility to come up with solutions.
Between China and South Korea, although the two sides agreed in October 2017 to move beyond the disputes regarding Seoul’s 2016 decision to deploy the US-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system, which China considered a strategic threat to its national security, rebuilding political trust has been slow.
The matter between China and Japan is equally delicate. During his 45-minute meeting with Xi on the summit sidelines, Abe also urged China to improve transparency over the Xinjiang Uygur
Autonomous Region and continue to exercise restraint over Hong Kong. This no doubt irked Beijing as it has repeatedly declared the two issues to be domestic.
According to Jin Canrong, a professor of Sino-US relationships at the Renmin University of China, as the trilateral relationship is still subject to the influence of the US, it is unlikely that the trilateral talks on a free trade deal could make a major breakthrough when both Japan and South Korea are its allies. “There’s no doubt that the US doesn’t want Japan and South Korea to become too close to China, and least of all to see a trilateral free trade zone,” Jin said.
While increasing US pressure on Japan and South Korea regarding trade and military expenses has prompted the two countries to improve ties with China in the past couple of years, Washington still could sabotage trilateral cooperation, Jin said.
According to an article in the Japan Times on January 2, Tokyo will face the challenge of “a diplomatic balancing” between the US and China in 2020, as Xi is expected to visit Japan in early 2020, the first visit by the top Chinese leader since 2012.
For all three countries, the upcoming US presidential election in November presents the biggest uncertainty, as the result of the election will have a major implication for the global power balance.
As the dynamics of the strategic and economic interaction between the three countries and the US continue to evolve, the modern three kingdom tales between China, Japan and South Korea look set to continue.