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  • Old Actors Reconfigured: Crisis and Northeast Asia
  • Momoko Sato

In the piece, Statecraft at the Crossroads, Donna Marie Oglesby points to the challenges to American hegemony and the accelerated transformation of international politics precipitated by the 2008 financial crisis. While the impact of the crisis remains to be seen, it has indeed created an impetus for what has the potential to become significant shifts in the regional and international order. In particular, the case of the trilateral relationship between China, Japan, and South Korea (ROK) is an indication of how such crises can trigger pragmatic efforts for cooperation and deepened regional ties.

The development of the China-Japan-ROK trilateral relationship has been driven heavily by crises and a growing number of shared interests. The Asian financial crisis served as the primary catalyst for not only greater regional economic cooperation, but for the nascent foundation of a trilateral institutional architecture as well. The 1997–98 crisis demonstrated the vulnerability of Asia’s small open economies to sudden financial shock and exposed the wider region to the ensuing financial contagion. In the aftermath of the crisis, the region-centered drive to prevent such a recurrence spurred talks of an Asian Monetary Fund and a Northeast Asian Development Bank in Japan and the ROK, respectively, while nebulous ideas for pan-Asian economic integration reemerged concretely in the form of ASEAN+3 (APT) and various currency and bond initiatives.

In reference to the crisis nearly a decade ago, Henry Kissinger observed that although mutual suspicions and levels of development varied too greatly to permit the Asian equivalent of a European Union, Asian countries unwilling to accept such vulnerabilities would in the face of “another significant crisis in Asia or in the industrial democracies” accelerate efforts to gain greater control over their economic and political destinies.1 Indeed, as Kissinger predicted, the 2008 global financial crisis led to a spate of coordinated efforts between China, Japan, and the ROK, most notably the first independent trilateral summit meeting in 2008 in which the three parties agreed to expand bilateral swap arrangements and establish a regularized Tripartite Governors’ Meeting among the three central banks. Such visible and historically significant trilateral cooperation initiatives, though prompted by crisis, have been advanced through a decade-long development of multilayered frameworks formed through APT, Track II mechanisms, and issue-specific areas. [End Page 107]

The great gulf in historical memory and great power politics impeded political cooperation and economic integration. However, since the late 1990s, Northeast Asia has exhibited a growing interest in political and economic cooperation. On the heels of the Asian financial crisis, the informal breakfast meeting on the sidelines of the APT summit in 1999 marked the first meeting among the heads of China, Japan, and South Korea in modern times. Since then, the meetings have been held every year and have served as the forum for the development of formal institutional mechanisms and closer trilateral cooperation. In 2003, based on the shared initiative presented in the first APT summit, the three leaders issued the Joint Declaration on the Promotion of Tripartite Cooperation among China, Japan, and South Korea. The declaration established the Three-Party Committee, made of up the three foreign ministers and tasked to jointly study, plan, and coordinate trilateral cooperation in 14 areas such as trade, energy, environmental protection, and infectious disease.

Despite political tension and some anti-Japanese demonstrations in both China and South Korea, and beyond the sensationalist narrative of rising regional nationalism and escalation of conflict stemming from bitter memories of disputed history, lay the steady government interactions across wide-ranging issues. Issue-specific ministerial and director-general meetings regarding finance and the environment have occurred regularly since 2000, and have expanded to issues such as Africa policy, trade, IT, transportation, and earthquake cooperation in spite of periods of deteriorating higher-level relations in 2001 and 2005. The overall number of such exchanges has expanded from only five in 2000 and 2001 to 43 in 2007 and 2008.

To be sure, the development of such trilateral meetings is far from any indication that Northeast Asia will be on track to economic and political integration in the near to long-term future...


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pp. 107-108
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