When the foreign ministers of China, South Korea, and Japan convened in Seoul last week to discuss potential cooperation on a range of issues, from counterterrorism to air pollution, it was the first time they had met in nearly three years. But, beyond agreeing to hold a trilateral summit at the “earliest convenient time,” the key question that all three face remains unresolved: Will they manage to settle – or at least set aside – their territorial and historical disputes in order to advance their common interests?

China certainly hopes so, at least with regard to its Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, a thinly veiled effort to promote and stimulate China’s construction industry. But, on this front, Japan and South Korea were reticent, politely agreeing to study China’s invitation to join the AIIB. Both countries recognize the implications of participating in an initiative that undermines the Asian Development Bank and even the World Bank, though South Korea has now announced its intention to join.

The AIIB is envisioned as a kind of throwback development bank, one that launches infrastructure projects with little red tape and no consideration of social or environmental factors. But, if the AIIB is to achieve its ambitious goals, which include a modern recreation of the ancient Silk Road trade route to Europe, China will have to overcome more than its neighbors’ reluctance; it will also have to contend with its citizens’ growing impatience with grandiose visions.
For the Chinese public, massive collective endeavors are simply not as important as, say, sidewalks and buses that enable their children to get to school safely. As China’s urban sprawl increasingly turns what once had been short, simple trips into long, dangerous odysseys, managing such demands is requiring a growing proportion of the government’s attention.

The Chinese authorities are also struggling to cope with the conflicting impulses of their growing national-security state. In recent years, China has taken most of its regional relationships for granted, acting unilaterally in ways that raised tensions with its neighbors. China can repair these relationships – but only if it can navigate the historical issues in which many of today’s conflicts are rooted.

Given the depth of these issues, China’s long-overdue trilateral discussions with Japan and South Korea must be about more than development cooperation or even counterterrorism. They must aim to cultivate a sense that the three countries, however incompatible they may seem, share a common destiny. Indeed, their futures will be just as intertwined as their pasts were. The sooner these countries’ leaders recognize this and take responsibility for their common future, the better their chances of escaping, once and for all, the conflict and resentment of the past.

In this effort, each country will have a role to play. For Japan, the imperative is to continue to be an engine of development as it builds a post-industrial economy that, given its aging and shrinking population, is increasingly dependent on others. Already, Japan’s iconic brand names have become more internationalized than ever before.

Meanwhile, Japan’s political system, like many others around the world, must reconcile domestic demands with diplomatic relationship-building – no easy feat, as rising nationalism raises suspicions among the country’s neighbors. Japan must also meet the expectations of its more distant allies, especially the United States, so that it can assume a larger, more sustained role in global governance.

South Korea, as usual, is caught in the middle. Historically, when China and Japan were not tormenting each other, they were tormenting Korea. Given how deeply these experiences have affected Koreans, they should be forgiven if they appear at times to dwell excessively on old wrongs, especially those committed by Japan during World War II.

But deep historical resentments should not obscure the fact that South Korea is facing many of the same challenges as Japan. Faced with demographic decline, it, too, is attempting to shift toward a more internationalized post-industrial economy. In this sense, the two countries have much to offer each other.

China’s role is more complicated – not least because of its apparent competition with the US for regional influence. Indeed, though the US encouraged the trilateral meeting, it seems to worry that successful cooperation would undermine its ability to contain an increasingly powerful China and protect its own interests in Asia.

The US should not be concerned. China understands that it stands to benefit more from a dynamic and prosperous US economy than from fishing rights in the South China Sea or control of uninhabited rocks and outcroppings in the East China Sea.

Clearly, this benefits America’s allies, Japan and South Korea. They know that the US gives them leverage in their dealings with China, not only in discouraging its increasingly bold security posture, but also in advancing mutually beneficial economic and investment ties with their giant neighbor.

In short, cooperation among China, Japan, and South Korea is vital to secure their long-term shared future. But it can be effective only if they focus on the right issues – and that does not mean the AIIB.

What these three countries, together with the US, should focus on is mitigating the threat posed by North Korea. To this end, they must address an issue that was left out of the latest discussions: the American THAAD missile-defense system to protect South Korea from rogue North Korean launches.

As it stands, the THAAD system is causing much consternation in China. But it is under discussion for good reason. Indeed, as South Korean media speculated about whether the Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean foreign ministers had discussed the shield, a North Korean diplomat spoke proudly of his country’s success in marrying a nuclear device to a missile.

The timing of the boast was probably not intentional. Nonetheless, it was a useful reminder of the North’s idea of regional relations – and of why the “earliest convenient time” for a trilateral summit cannot come soon enough.

This article is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, a US special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and the chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. 

Image: Pedestrians walk under red lanterns which were installed as Chinese New Year decorations. REUTERS/Aly Song.