SHANGHAI - Senior officials from China, Japan and the United States are
reportedly planning to hold their first-ever trilateral policy dialogue in
Washington next month. But doubts over whether the talks will be able to
address pressing security matters in Northeast Asia have already raised fears
it will be little more than a talking shop.
The three countries have well-established bilateral channels. China has held
seven rounds of Strategic Economic Dialogue with America since 2005, and the
Sino-Japan Economic Dialogue started in 2007. Japan and the US have the "2+2"
dialogue that is attended by their foreign and defense ministers.
Until now, there has been no formal or informal triangular dialogue between the
world's three largest economies. The idea of holding a trilateral dialogue was
first floated by China to the George W Bush administration, but it was shelved
due to Washington's
concerns that such a move would be not be well received by South Korea.
The US, Japan and China have become increasingly economically inter-dependent,
especially amid the global financial crisis. Both the US and Japan are
suffering, while China's economic situation is marginally better. Not only the
US, but now Japan could be planning to seek China's economic help.
One of the major aims of US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's visit to
China in early June was no doubt to persuade Beijing to buy more US bonds.
Similarly, Japan may also hope that China could buy more Japanese goods.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced at the 11th Sino-European Union summit in
Prague last month that China would purchase more goods from European countries.
As it needs to diversify its huge foreign reserves from US dollar assets, China
could also seek closer economic ties with Japan.
At the dialogue session, Japan will be represented by Koro Bessho, deputy vice
foreign minister and director general of the Foreign Ministry's Foreign Policy
Bureau, and the United States by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the State Department's
policy planning director. A Foreign Ministry official is expected to represent
China, the Kyodo news agency reported on June 7.
A pressing issue of common concern is the growing challenge to security in
Northeast Asia created by North Korea's recent series of missile launches and
particularly its nuclear test on May 25. However, sources from the Obama
administration told Kyodo that issues such as North Korea would, in principle,
not be discussed at the talks - as Seoul will not be present.
How far security related issues will be addressed is uncertain, and the talks
are likely to focus on the overall Asian situation and global issues such as
climate change and energy, the source told the newspaper.
This represents an opportunity lost, as North Korea has said it will "never
return" to the six-party talks on its nuclear program, and China, the US and
Japan are the three major players in these talks.
However, the trilateral dialogue still has important implications for Northeast
Asia. They will represent the first time that the US-Japan strategic alliance
has discussed regional and global issues with its long-time adversary in the
region - China.
But can this dialogue become a significant multilateral arrangement in
Northeast Asia? Can it be said that it marks the beginning of an end to Cold
War-like tensions in the region?
It is one thing for the countries to talk, it is quite another for them to
agree on any solutions. The dialogue will be meaningless if it is just a
platform for participants to respectively utter their different positions.
If the dialogue fails to become a formal mechanism similar to existing Sino-US,
Sino-Japanese or US-Japanese dialogues, it then can hardly be expected to
resolve major issues. The trilateral dialogue needs to be institutionalized for
it to play an important role in tackling regional issues.
Another obstacle is the complex nature of contemporary Sino-Japan relations.
There are long-running historical and territorial disputes between the nations,
and it has been reported that Japan plans to purchase more advanced jet
fighters from the US to keep China's military modernization in check. Such an
arms race would surely undermine the future of the planned trilateral dialogue.
Whether the three-way talks mark the beginning of an end to the Cold War-like
tensions in East and Northeast Asia depends on two factors - the future of
US-Japan and US-South Korea ties and the North Korea nuclear issue.
If, on the one hand, the China-US-Japan dialogue continues annually but the US
continues to strengthen its presence through these allies in the region, then
the trilateral dialogue will just become a talk shop.
More specifically, if the dialogue is not aimed at ending the US-led military
alliance in the region, it cannot lead to the end of tensions.
With its second nuclear test last month, North Korea reminded the international
community that the Cold War is still alive in North Asia. Without the Cold War,
there would be no 38th Parallel dividing South Korea and North Korea, and there
would not be so many American soldiers and weapons defending the South. Without
the 38th Parallel and the US's military presence on the Korean Peninsula, North
Korea would have had no excuse to develop nuclear weapons.
Only when this issue is addressed by a Sino-US-Japan dialogue can it be
expected to end regional tensions. If the dialogue is to become an important
and effective platform it must address security, as this is the most-pressing
To achieve this, the three nations need to consider setting up a collective
security mechanism. Sooner or later, they will need to discuss the North Korean
nuclear issue and, in relation, the US-led military alliance in the region.
A collective security mechanism could replace the US-led alliance in East and
Northeast Asia, and could include not only the US, Japan and South Korea, but
also China, North Korea and even Russia. The trilateral dialogue should discuss
how to change the role of the US-led military alliance, to solve the North
Korean nuclear issue and build a collective security mechanism in the region.
Dr Jian Junbo is assistant professor of the Institute of International
Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.