In the United States, there is much talk about how the collapse in Japan-ROK relations since July 2019 poses challenges for the US-Japan-ROK trilateral relationship led by Washington and supports Beijing in driving a wedge into US alliances. What are the Chinese authors saying? If they see an opportunity, what is it, and how do they envision their country taking advantage of it? Is the right response to improve economic and security relations with both parties? To entice the weakest link in the US-led triangle, South Korea, or to pressure it? And what are the challenges? This article distinguishes three groups of Chinese writers that address Japan-ROK relations, putting their arguments in the context of the trilateral alliance system.
The first group predicts that the Japan-ROK trade dispute can be managed due to the potential negative economic impact on both countries. In addition, they predict that the US will mediate once Japan-ROK relations threaten the US-Japan-ROK trilateral security framework. In short, the breakdown in relations in 2019 is not a gamechanger. The second group emphasizes the importance of understanding the long-run impact of the Japan-ROK trade dispute, especially its potential impact on the ongoing Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and China-Japan-ROK Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations. This group sees opportunities in using China’s economic leverage to improve Japan-ROK relations vis-à-vis the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and strengthen the China-Japan-ROK triangle. The implied strategy is not to try to drive a wedge but to rely on economic carrots to entice both states. The third group sees South Korea as the weakest point in US-Japan-ROK relations and argues for strategic improvement in relations with South Korea to weaken the US containment strategy. This approach singles out the
South Korean side by capitalizing on its alienation from Japan and driving a deeper wedge.
Overall, Chinese authors agree that the tension in Japan-ROK relations will weaken the US-Japan-ROK security framework, but they differ on the severity of this impact and on whether China should be cautious in order not to impede the steady development of the alternative China-Japan-ROK triangle, push hard for this alternative given the sudden opportunity, or seize the opening with an assertive approach targeting South Korea. Not anticipating a bonanza, few appear optimistic about this last option, although watchfulness can be expected.
First, this article addresses recent developments in the US-Japan-ROK trilateral framework in the context of the US-China strategic competition. In doing so, it explains how external threats and shifting power dynamics affect South Korea and Japan’s foreign policy. Next, the article outlines how Chinese analysts understand the causes of the Japan-ROK trade dispute. It then discusses Chinese authors’ predictions regarding Japan-ROK relations going forward and their implications. If Japan-ROK relations worsen, some argue that this can impede the development of the China-Japan-ROK triangle, especially RCEP and China-Japan-ROK FTA negotiations. This article also discusses different ways in which China can be active and promote Japan-ROK cooperation. For instance, one of the ways in which China could develop relations is through the Belt and Road Initiative and third-party market cooperation. The article also discusses respective challenges for China in engaging with neighboring countries, such as the overriding US security influence and North Korea’s nuclear threat. All of the following factors – China’s economic rise, declining US influence in Northeast Asia, and improved China-Japan and China-ROK relations – have led China to seek opportunities in developing the China-Japan-ROK triangle, which could potentially undermine the US-Japan-ROK alliance system, deemed to be containing China’s rise.
The US-Japan-ROK alliance system faces a whirlwind of challenges as a result of diplomatic tension and economic disputes between Japan and South Korea. Since the normalization of Japan-South Korea relations in 1965 and the development of the trilateral virtual alliance, the three countries have addressed shared global concerns posed by North Korea, China, and Russia while cooperating to promote peace and stability in the region. Yet the Japan-South Korea quasi-alliance has remained the biggest variable in the stability of the trilateral system due to historical tensions over “comfort women” and forced laborers as well as the Dokdo/Takeshima territorial dispute. In 2019, South Korea and Japan entered the lowest point in bilateral relations in the last 50 years. The United States’ two main allies in Northeast Asia have been engulfed in a tit-for-tat trade dispute since July 2019. On July 1, Japan announced export restrictions on three critical elements for constructing semiconductors and display screens – fluorinated polyimide, resist, and hydrogen fluoride. The Japanese government alleged that this was due to concerns regarding South Korea’s “illegal exports” to North Korea. The Moon administration responded by stating that this was economic retaliation over historical issues regarding its Supreme Court decision in October 2018, which ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. to pay reparations for forced laborers during World War II. Despite US efforts to address the dispute through trilateral consultations on the sidelines of the G20 Osaka Summit and the ASEAN+3 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Thailand, there were no signs of easing tensions. China also signaled its intent to address tensions at the China-Japan-ROK foreign ministers’ meeting in August 2019 where Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi stated, “China will expand its cooperation with South Korea and Japan, and defend its principles of multilateralism and free trade…”1 Following such proceedings, Japan officially removed South Korea from its “whitelist” on August 28, and the Moon administration retaliated by downgrading Japan’s preferential trade status.
On security cooperation, the main shared concern among the three countries is North Korea’s nuclear threat. One of the biggest milestones in the trilateral framework was the signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in November 2016. However, the Moon administration announced on August 22, 2019 that it would not renew GSOMIA, which is an important foundation of the trilateral system and a bilateral mechanism to share critical information on North Korea’s activities in the region. The Moon administration stated that its decision was based on Japan’s removal of South Korea from its whitelist, which created “grave change” for security cooperation.2 Meanwhile, North Korea has conducted eleven missile tests in 2019 despite its pledge at the 2018 Singapore summit to work towards complete denuclearization. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that the series of missile tests were in response to Dong Maeng, the scaled down version of Foal Eagle and Key Resolve US-ROK joint military exercises.3 Clearly, these tests were designed to strengthen and develop military capabilities. Experts have suggested that the Pukguksong-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on October 2, 2019 indicates North Korea will unveil its ballistic missile submarine before long.4 Decreased information sharing capabilities coupled with nuclear threats by North Korea pose increased security threats to the already weakened trilateral alliance system.
While the trilateralism has mainly focused on North Korea’s nuclear threat in the last few decades, additional security and economic concerns have emerged in Northeast Asia with China’s rise. The acceleration of China’s military modernization coupled with the CCP’s goal of realizing the China Dream of “national rejuvenation” has been posing increased threats to the US and its allies.5 China has made diplomatic efforts to reassure neighboring countries that its intentions are peaceful. Yet it has taken advantage of the weakened US-Japan-ROK framework to flex its muscles in the region. In July 2019, China and Russia coordinated joint air patrols to test the durability of the trilateral system during Japan-ROK trade rows. As the Trump administration engages in great-power competition with China through the trade war and the implementation of the Indo-Pacific strategy, it may not succeed without a stable trilateral system.
Although the US can manage the two alliances and its leadership role in the region, it is important to note that allies no longer maintain the traditional “us” versus “them” mentality. Asian countries have been carefully developing relations with both the US and China due to the opportunity costs of siding with only one country – Japan and South Korea cannot risk getting trapped in the US-China competition while endangering trade relations with the largest economy in Asia. After the 2017 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) reprisals, South Korea understands its decisions on Huawei and 5G can potentially lead to economic retaliation from China. As a result, it hesitantly signed on to the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy in July 2019, which largely coincides with the New Southern Policy, which did not prevent LG Uplus Corp from adopting Huawei equipment despite US warnings. In contrast, Japan has been actively cooperating with the US to promote a Free and Open Indo-Pacific through joint naval exercises while also underscoring in its Diplomatic Bluebook 2019 that “it is extremely important for Japan to build a stable relationship with China.”6 Hence, China is a shared threat for the US, Japan, and South Korea and also an external variable that can affect the stability of the triangle.
China’s views on the causes of the Japan-ROK dispute
As tensions escalate, Chinese writers argue that the Japan-ROK trade dispute can be attributed to five underlying factors. First, Liu Rongrong and Wang Shan argue that Japan and South Korea’s improved relations with China decreased the need for Japan-ROK strategic cooperation. Abe’s diplomatic focus is to “settle Japan’s postwar diplomacy,” which would then pave the way for him to revise the constitution and enable stronger Self-Defense Forces.7 For example, Abe in September 2018 delivered his seventh policy speech at the ordinary Diet session and emphasized his goal to “settle Japan’s postwar diplomacy.”8 Although he did not explicitly mention South Korea in his speech, he signaled his intent to resolve the “comfort women” issue. Earlier that year, Abe had refused to apologize for the “comfort women” issue and stated that Seoul’s revisiting of the issue is “completely unacceptable” since the 2015 “comfort women” agreement resolved the issue “finally and irreversibly.”9 Liu and Wang argue that by removing South Korea from the whitelist, the Abe administration is attempting to use economic power to pressure South Korea to settle historical issues. Abe’s decision was made possible by normalized China-Japan relations, which provided favorable conditions for Abe to demonstrate Japan’s economic strength to South Korea. In contrast, the Moon administration shifted its diplomatic strategy to prioritize relations with North Korea and play a “driving role” in negotiations rather than cooperating with Japan. Liu and Wang argue that South Korea no longer considers Japan as a strategic partner because of improved China-ROK relations in the political, economic, and military spheres. Improved ties with China increased room for both sides to maneuver and have emboldened Japan and South Korea to pursue strong policy responses towards each other.
Second, Liu and Wang argue that the fundamental reason for the trade dispute is the balance of power between Japan and South Korea, especially with South Korea’s rise as a middle power. 10 South Korea has been defining its role as a middle power since President Roh Moo-hyun’s vision of South Korea’s role as a “balancer” between China and Japan. Since then, President Lee Myung-bak has proposed the vision of “Global Korea,” and Park Geun-hye joined MIKTA, an informal group of middle power countries in the international community. Liu and Wang argue that Moon challenged Abe with his goal to become a great power in Asia and attain equal status to Japan. Li Tingting further argues that the semiconductor industry is one area where South Korea has been challenging Japan’s status.11 On April 30, 2019, Moon announced his vision to foster the semiconductor industry and stated he would establish South Korea “as a true comprehensive semiconductor powerhouse.”12 He further stated that South Korea would secure the “No. 1 spot in the system chip foundry sector by 2030” and “achieve 10 percent market share in the fabless area.”13 South Korea has already overcome Japan’s electronics industry. According to Fortune magazine in 2015, Samsung Electronics ranked 15th globally while Hitachi ranked 85th.14 With rapid developments in electronics, Seoul’s hope is to further close the economic gap with Japan through a unified Korean Peninsula.15 Li argues that Japan has taken these developments into consideration and made a long-term strategic decision to target the growing semiconductor industry, which accounts for the largest percentage of South Korean exports.
Third, Liu and Wang argue that Moon and Abe are using nationalism to maintain approval ratings as their economies contract. 16 Moon’s approval rating has been declining as the economy slows down, the unemployment rate increases, and talks with North Korea stall. Gallup Korea’s survey in May 2019 found that 45 percent of South Koreans said that Moon is “doing a bad job,” and 45 percent of those respondents stated that they were frustrated with his economic policy.17 As South Korea’s economy continues to contract, Moon has been stirring nationalist sentiments and refusing to back down on the trade dispute to increase approval ratings among his base supporters. At the same time, “Abenomics” has been unsuccessful, and Japan’s economy is shrinking. Therefore, Abe is using the trade dispute to stir nationalism and maintain his approval rating as well. As a result, mutual trust has declined. Surveys show South Koreans’ favorable attitude towards Japan dropped to 12 percent while Japanese favorable sentiments towards South Korea decreased to 20 percent. 18
Fourth, Trump’s “America First” policy is leading Japan and South Korea to pursue independent policies rather than cooperate within the US-Japan-ROK trilateral framework. The Obama administration understood the value of the alliance and facilitated the signing of the “comfort women” agreement in 2015 and GSOMIA in 2016. In contrast, Liu Rongrong and Wang Shan note that Trump is more transactional regarding alliances and is indifferent to multilateral cooperation. During the trade dispute, US national security advisor John Bolton held meetings with South Korean and Japan officials respectively. Rather than actively mediating the dispute, Bolton demanded an increase in burden sharing and requested South Korea to pay $5 billion for the upcoming Special Measures Agreement (SMA) talks. Knowing that the US is less willing to intervene, Liu and Wang argue that Japan made the strategic decision to weaponize trade and target South Korea. Therefore, Trump’s transactional policies widened rifts in US-Japan, US-ROK and Japan-ROK relations, reducing the cooperation under the trilateral alliance system.
Fifth, Wang Taiping argues that the US is not actively mediating the dispute because it is using this opportunity to weaken the China-Japan-ROK triangle.19 Wang argues that since the dispute does not directly affect the two security alliances, on which Trump places great weight, he may be less worried about security cooperation among the three countries. More importantly, the US has been carefully watching the ongoing China-Japan-ROK FTA negotiations and RCEP talks. In 2019, Liu Qing predicted that if the China-Japan-ROK FTA is successfully achieved, the total GDP would reach $20 trillion and make up 20 percent of global GDP. 20 Liu Qing argues that the US is particularly afraid that it would lose its hegemony in the region and that its regional influence would decline as China-Japan-ROK cooperation deepens. In addition, Liu argues that the US is also afraid that the development of the China-Japan-ROK triangle would advance the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM) through a currency swap agreement among the ASEAN+3 members, as well as the Asian Bond Markets Initiative (ABMI).21 Since the CMIM and ABMI would allow Asian countries to de-link from the US dollar, these initiatives threaten the value of the US dollar in the region. Taking these factors into consideration, Chinese writers agree that Trump will use this opportunity to weaken Japan-ROK relations and impede the development of the China-Japan-ROK triangle.
Given such explanations of causality, Chinese consider time to be on their side and Japan-ROK relations unlikely to advance in accord with US desires. Discerning a struggle over economic regionalism, they concentrate on economic causes of the deterioration in relations and economic responses. A divide is evident on whether those responses should reassure the US, strive to work with both Japan and South Korea, or concentrate on South Korea. Surprisingly missing is revival of appeals for efforts to use the “history card” to drive a wedge between South Korea and Japan.
China’s views on the future of the Japan-ROK trade dispute
Chinese analysts predict that the Japan-ROK trade dispute will be unable to be resolved in the short-run. Liu Rongrong and Wang Shan predict that Abe and Moon will refuse to back down in the near future, especially since nationalist sentiments are high in both countries.22 Moon has already stated that the Supreme Court is an independent branch and that he would not interfere with the court ruling on the forced labor issue. In addition, anti-Japanese sentiments have been increasing– South Koreans have been boycotting Japanese goods and canceling trips to Japan. As mutual trust between the two countries declines, Liu and Wang argue that normalization of relations will be difficult to achieve in the near future.
Despite fragile Japan-ROK relations, most Chinese writers predict that the dispute will not spiral out of control in the long-run due to several constraints. First, Japan and South Korea will not escalate tensions into a full-blown trade war due to its potential economic impact. If Japan officially imposes a trade embargo, Liu and Wang argue that this would negatively affect Japan’s international reputation and violate WTO regulations.23 In addition, Japan would not escalate tensions into a trade war since South Korea is Japan’s third largest trading partner and their supply chains are closely integrated. If Japan prolongs the trade dispute, both Japan and South Korea’s economy would be negatively impacted. Li Qingru predicts that a 30 percent gap in South Korea’s supply of raw materials due to Japan’s export control would decrease South Korea’s GDP by 2.2 percent.24 If South Korea chooses to retaliate, South Korea and Japan’s GDP would decline by 3.1 percent and 1.8 percent respectively.25 If the supply gap increases to 40 percent, Li predicts that South Korea’s GDP would further decline by 4.2 percent. As both countries experience economic downturns in 2019, analysts predict that they will not prolong the trade dispute since it could result in a lose-lose situation for both sides.
In addition, Wang Taiping predicts that Abe will not prolong the trade war since his main intent is to take a strong stance on historical issues.26 Since Japan is using this trade dispute to warn South Korea not to revisit historical issues including the “comfort women” and forced labor ones, Wang predicts that Abe will put an end to the trade dispute at the right time. Feng Wei explains that Japan was angered by South Korea’s court ruling on the forced labor issue since it believes that the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea already settled historical issues.27 Therefore, Abe chose to use economic retaliation on South Korea’s semiconductor industry, a pillar of its economy. Feng further predicts that Abe will not prolong the trade dispute since his intention is to “hit” South Korea’s crucial semiconductor industry as a warning rather than “kill” its economy.28 For instance, Japan has shown willingness to ease tensions by approving the export of photoresist to South Korea on August 8, 2019.
Writers further predict that the US will not allow Japan-ROK relations to deteriorate beyond a certain point and undermine the US-Japan-ROK security framework. Zhou Yongsheng argues that the US may be willing to let Japan use economic retaliation on South Korea to a certain extent since Trump is dissatisfied with Moon’s unilateral decisions on policies toward North Korea.29 That is, Trump is using Japan’s economic retaliation to indirectly exert pressure on the Moon administration’s foreign policy. However, writers argue that Trump will need stable Japan-ROK relations to effectively implement the Indo-Pacific strategy. If Japan-ROK relations start to spiral out of control, Liu and Wang predict that the US will actively intervene and even mediate to protect the US-Japan-ROK triangle and safeguard its interests in the region.30
Li Qingru argues that China should not rule out the possibility of Japan-ROK tensions escalating in the long-run.31 Li predicts that the two countries may not be able to resolve tensions in the short-run and that Japan may increase the scope of export controls on dual-use goods to include mechanical equipment and chemicals. If Japan prolongs the trade dispute, Zhou Yongsheng predicts that South Korea may choose to decouple economic relations with Japan.32 Zhou argues that South Korea can reduce its dependence on Japan’s supply of critical materials by 90 percent by purchasing Chinese substitutes and investing in domestic technology. Chinese authors argue that the trade dispute will therefore provide opportunities for China to promote scientific innovation and increase market share in the supply of materials for semiconductor production. However, Li Qingru warns that China should keep in mind that it still lags behind the level of technology of Japan and the United States. Even so, South Korea’s vulnerability would open the door for China to draw it more closely into Chinese supply chains as the path to closer relations.
Opportunities and constraints for the China-Japan-ROK triangle
If the trade dispute escalates over the long-run, Chinese analysts predict that this would negatively impact the ongoing RCEP talks and China’s vision for regional economic integration. In 2019, Li Qingru argued that the growing Japan-ROK tensions will present one of the biggest obstacles to the advancement of the China-Japan-ROK triangle, especially China-Japan-ROK FTA negotiations and RCEP talks.33 South Korea and Japan are crucial to China’s vision of regional economic integration as Beijing intends to host the eighth China-Japan-ROK trilateral summit in December 2019. China had hoped to hold the trilateral meeting earlier in 2019 but Japan rejected the proposal as the trade dispute intensified. In addition, although ministers from 16 countries agreed to conclude the RCEP agreement by November 2019, it is now uncertain whether this can be accomplished due in part to the Japan-ROK trade dispute. In Dongbeiya luntan, Liu Qing argues that China should mitigate potential threats to the China-Japan-ROK triangle by mediating Japan-ROK relations, managing historical issues, and increasing mutual trust through trilateral cooperation.34 Liu suggests that the three countries increase mutual trust under the framework of the BRI. Specifically, Liu suggests that China should take the leading role and advance “China-Japan-ROK plus X” cooperation in areas including environmental conservation, disaster risk reduction, and poverty alleviation. In addition, the three countries can deepen cooperation by establishing a China-Japan-ROK mutual investment fund. This could provide investments in fourth-party markets and deepen cooperation in areas including high-speed rail, nuclear power, and coal-fire.
Liu also suggests that China can develop bilateral relations with Japan and South Korea respectively to further advance the China-Japan-ROK triangle. For China-Japan economic cooperation, Liu states that both sides can explore ways to cooperate in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and use the joint development of the Eastern Economic Corridor of Thailand as a model for future projects. Cheng Wen believes that the BRI will be one of the main areas for China to develop China-Japan economic relations and prevent conflicts that arise from competition in the future.35 Cheng argues that China-Japan relations can be characterized by a “competitive and reciprocal” structure (jingzhengxing huhui). They are “competitive” since they do not share the same political ideology, which results in different economic policies. Yet their relationship is also “reciprocal” since they share common values in the region and mutually benefit from economic development. Cheng argues that the two sides can avoid competition and clashes that may arise from ideological differences by constructing a shared “collective identity” through the BRI, which would build a community of shared destiny and use identity to deepen economic interdependence between the two countries. For example, Japan and China agreed to work towards a win-win economic cooperation model in October 2018, which increased opportunities for cooperation under the BRI.36 In addition, Japan has joined China in the joint development of the Eastern Economic Corridor of Thailand.
Liu Qing further suggests that China can connect the BRI to South Korea’s New Northern Policy and New Southern Policy. However, Xue Li argues that China has to first resolve North Korea’s nuclear threat in the region in order to successfully link the BRI with the New Northern Policy.37 The construction of the Hunchun International Logistics Center (funded by POSCO and Hyundai Co.) took over six years to complete after it was initially suspended due to complications from North Korea’s nuclear test.38 Hunchun – a trade zone on the border of China and North Korea – is particularly prone to being affected by North Korea’s nuclear threats due to its unique location. Xue argues that China should mitigate such complications by promoting denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and the unification of the two Koreas. Xue does not have high hopes for the success of linking the BRI and the New Northern and Southern projects in the short run since the success of joint projects will be determined by the progress of the denuclearization of North Korea. Taking these factors into consideration, Xue suggests that China can limit future risks by pursuing limited pilot projects such as the construction of the Northern Sea Route and third-party market cooperation. In addition, Xue suggests piloting projects that are unrelated to North Korea in the short run. For example, South Korea can ship home electronics through the Yuxinou international railway logistics channel. Xue argues that China will have to prepare to cooperate with South Korea on projects related to North Korea since the BRI is a “Project of the Century.”
Compared to earlier reasoning, recent Chinese writings seem preoccupied with boosting China-led economic regionalism not playing on historical differences or prioritizing security. This may indicate a response to the Sino-US trade war and China’s slowing economy and a strategy to manage history issues and security over the long-term. Yet security is not overlooked, as shown in the next section reflecting on the GSOMIA shift, which has emboldened security aspirations.
China’s views on security opportunities and constraints
As Japan-ROK relations worsen and South Korea withdraws from GSOMIA, Chinese writers see opportunities to weaken the US-Japan-ROK security alliance and develop China-Japan-ROK security relations. In 2019, Liu Qing argued that China can increase political trust among China, Japan, and South Korea by deepening security cooperation. In particular, he suggested that China should take the leading role in expanding China-Japan-ROK relations to include security cooperation and fostering a culture of mutual cooperation.39 Liu suggests that the three countries promote dialogue through track one and track two diplomacy and understand their “shared destiny in Northeast Asia.” In addition, Liu states that the three countries should maintain communications and manage sensitive historical issues to prevent aggravating public opinion. By doing so, Liu argues that the China-Japan-ROK triangle can further promote peace on the Korean Peninsula and build a regional security framework.
One opportunity for China is the weakening US-Japan-ROK security alliance as South Korea withdraws from GSOMIA. Li Tingting argues that South Korea may have initially threatened to withdraw from GSOMIA in July in hopes that this would lead the US to mediate the trade dispute.40 As South Korea officially announced its withdrawal from GSOMIA and tensions escalated into the security sphere, Li Tingting argues that this may loosen the US-Japan-ROK security cooperation mechanism and even weaken US hegemony in the region. In addition, Song Xiaojun argues that the scrapping of GSOMIA not only weakens the US-Japan-ROK security alliance, but also threatens the effectiveness of the US Indo-Pacific strategy.41 Chinese had seen GSOMIA as a threat to China’s efforts in developing ties with South Korea. In 2017, Zhan Debin stated that GSOMIA would be one of the biggest challenges to China’s diplomatic efforts with South Korea.42 Zhan argued that GSOMIA threatens China-ROK relations since it sets rules for the exchange of information and facilitates information sharing regarding North Korea’s military movements as well as Chinese military information. In addition, Zhan warned that if South Korea and Japan continue to develop mechanisms for security cooperation, they may be able to overcome historical issues, reduce misperceptions over time, and strengthen military and security cooperation. Such a negative outcome for China now has a better chance to be avoided.
Chinese analysts note that Trump’s “America First” policy has further weakened the US-Japan-ROK security triangle. Sun Xiao understands that the US chose not to mediate between its two allies because it would affect the trilateral security alliance.43 Hence the US only expressed its disappointment and urged “each of the two countries to continue to engage” when South Korea withdrew from GSOMIA rather than actively mediating between the two.44 In addition, Trump responded to Moon’s request for mediation, saying that “It’s like a full-time job getting involved with Japan and South Korea.”45 Sun argues that US “inaction” will benefit the “America First” policy interests in the short run. However, if the US continues its reluctance to directly engage its allies, the trilateral framework will be weakened and US influence in Asia will decline as well. In addition, if Japan and South Korea believe that US leadership is unreliable, Sun Xiao argues that they may choose to establish a new security alliance with China. Sun suggests that China should take this opportunity to advance the China-Japan-ROK FTA agreement, which will enable Beijing to further establish regional economic and security integration. Therefore, Sun states, the trade dispute may provide China with the opportunity to fill the power vacuum as a result of weakened US influence in the region.
Pang Zhongpeng suggests that China can weaken the US-ROK alliance by targeting South Korea, which is the weakest side of the triangle, arguing that the US-ROK alliance faces challenges since South Korea wants to achieve sovereignty and decrease dependence on the United States. 46 He states that the main reasons for growing anti-US sentiment in South Korea is because: 1) South Koreans blame the US for dividing the Korean Peninsula; and 2) they believe wartime operational control (OPCON) and the United States Forces Korea (USFK) presence limit Korea’s sovereignty. In fact, the Moon administration has accelerated efforts to proceed with OPCON transfer and restore South Korea’s sovereignty. Pang argues that unstable US-ROK bilateral relations limit effective trilateral cooperation and China can break the trilateral alliance through South Korea, the weak link. This is the long-held view by Chinese writers, who argue that China should deepen bilateral relations with South Korea to weaken the negative impact of the trilateral framework. Pang suggests that it should continue to develop relations with South Korea to remove the containment strategy that the US and Japan created in the Asia-Pacific.
While China-ROK diplomatic relations have overall improved since the 2017 THAAD incident, Wang Xiaoke acknowledges the difficulty in fully removing the United States’ security influence in South Korea. In Dangdai Hanguo, Wang argues that Moon is balancing by hedging between the US and China.47 Despite such efforts, Wang believes that South Korea has yet to break through the structure imposed by the US-ROK alliance. After Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha stated in October 2018 that South Korea’s unilateral sanctions were under review for inter-Korean joint economic projects, Trump responded that South Korea “won’t do it without our approval. They do nothing without our approval.”48 This signaled that South Korea would not be able to ease sanctions unilaterally without the consent of its ally. Since it is difficult to fully remove the US influence in South Korea, Chinese propose that China and South Korea promote a security cooperation mechanism and enter a new era of bilateral relations. For example, China and South Korea can promote security cooperation by strengthening military-to-military talks to reduce misperception and increase trust mechanisms.49
Chinese observers have been closely watching the trade dispute unfold as Japan-ROK relations worsen and South Korea officially announces that it will not renew GSOMIA. Most attribute the escalating Japan-ROK trade dispute to five underlying factors: 1) Japan and South Korea’s improved relations with China decreased the need for their strategic cooperation; 2) shifts in the balance of power led Japan to strategically target South Korea’s semiconductor industry; 3) Moon and Abe are using nationalism to maintain approval ratings as their economy contracts; 4) Trump’s “America First” policy is leading Japan and South Korea to pursue independent policies rather than cooperate within the US-Japan-ROK trilateral framework; and 5) Trump is not actively mediating the dispute because he is using this opportunity to weaken the China-Japan-ROK triangle. Chinese authors understand that the US is reluctant to mediate since it does not want to choose sides between allies. However, they also believe that Trump is not mediating since he wants to take advantage of the Japan-ROK trade dispute and weaken the China-Japan-ROK triangle. In particular, some argue that the US will allow Japan-ROK relations to weaken to a certain point and impede the development of regional economic integration. They predict that this could affect the success of the RCEP and FTA talks, which are both scheduled to take place by the end of 2019.
Chinese authors are inclined to view Japan-ROK relations as manageable and the trade dispute as not ending up in a full-blown trade war. They predict that the US will eventually mediate if there is a threat to US-Japan-ROK security trilateralism. In addition, they believe that Abe and Moon will not prolong the trade dispute since it would negatively affect their economies, which are already declining. Yet, several authors note that it is important to consider the long-run effects of the trade dispute. They argue that if Japan-ROK relations do not normalize in the long-run, this would negatively impact the ongoing China-Japan-ROK FTA negotiations and RCEP talks. Therefore, they suggested ways to improve relations with Japan and South Korea through joint projects in the BRI. China has already been accelerating efforts to realize this vision. To improve economic relations with Japan, the first China-Japan Third-Party Market Cooperation Forum was held in Beijing in October 2018.50 In addition, China hosted the ninth China-Japan-ROK trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting as an effort to ease tensions between Japan and South Korea in August 2019.51 During the meeting, the three sides renewed commitments to explore the “Trilateral +X” cooperation structure under the framework of the BRI in areas including environmental conservation, poverty alleviation, and people-to-people exchanges.52 As China’s economic influence increases and the US regional influence declines, some also suggest that Beijing should take the leading role in Asia and alleviate tensions between its neighboring countries. In addition to their vision of regional economic integration, they have further proposed the alternative China-Japan-ROK security triangle which would undermine the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, seen as containing China’s rise.
The boldest arguments suggest that the time is ripe for China to press harder for economic ties that exclude the US and security ties at least with South Korea. The improvement in ties to Japan of late may account for hesitation to drive a wedge between Japan and South Korea or optimism over economic regionalism. Whatever the option preferred, there is no shortage of confidence in China’s prospects over the long run. Absent is support for South Korea or demonization of Japan over history issues. The strategy appears to have shifted from driving a wedge to capitalizing on the US retreat to boost economic regionalism with security implications on Chinese minds too.
1. Lee Jeong-ho, “Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi offers to help Japan and South Korea to settle trade dispute,” South China Morning Post, August 21, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3023738/chinese-foreign-minister-wang-yi-urges-japan-and-south-korea
2. Hyonhee Shin, Josh Smith, and Kiyoshi Takenaka, “South Korea to scrap intelligence-sharing pact with Japan amid dispute over history,” Reuters, August 22, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-japan-labourers/south-korea-to-scrap-intelligence-sharing-pact-with-japan-amid-history-feud-idUSKCN1VC0WR
3. Joyce Lee and Hyonhee Shin, “North Korea’s Kim says missile launches are warning to U.S., South Korea over drill: KCNA,” Reuters, August 6, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles/north-koreas-kim-says-missile-launches-are-warning-to-u-s-south-korea-over-drill-kcna-idUSKCN1UW2CR
4. Joseph Bermudez, Victor Cha, and Dana Kim. “Sinpo Update: Significant Concealment Activity after Pukguksong Launch,” CSIS Beyond Parallel, October 9, 2019. https://beyondparallel.csis.org/sinpo-update-significant-shrouding-activity-after-pukguksong-launch/
5. “Full text of Xi Jinping’s report at 19th CPC National Congress,” Xinhua, November 4, 2017, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/special/2017-11/03/c_136725942.htm
7. Liu Rongrong and Wang Shan, “Chenke yu xinhuan: Rihan guanxi ehua tanxi,” Xiandai guoji guanxi, No. 8, 2019.
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