PHNOM PENH--The trade ministers of Japan, China and South Korea on Nov. 20 agreed to start negotiations in early 2013 on a trilateral free trade agreement after their leaders showed a willingness to separate economic issues from their territorial disputes.
The agreement was reached at a meeting of the economy and trade ministers from the three countries amid a flurry of maneuvering over a number of potential free trade arrangements involving Asian nations.
A trilateral FTA would allow Japan and South Korea to more easily tap into China’s huge market. China wants to be involved in that FTA to help it keep in check the United States, which is leading the charge for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.
But the summit of the three countries and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Penh on Nov. 19 showed that Tokyo remains distant from the Beijing-Seoul camp in terms of diplomacy.
Before the talks, the leaders formed a row for a photograph. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen appeared to be acting as a buffer by standing between Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Wen looked straight ahead and never turned to face Noda.
During the day, the Chinese and South Korean leaders held talks for the third time this year--and both criticized Japan for the territorial disputes. Japan and South Korea are at odds over sovereignty of the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan, while Tokyo and Beijing both claim the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
There were no talks between Japan and China at the ASEAN conference.
However, some positive signs emerged.
Wen did not touch on the dispute over the Senkaku Islands at the ASEAN+3 meeting. Instead, he emphasized the cooperation over the past 15 years between Japan, China and South Korea in the economic and financial fields.
According to a top Japanese Foreign Ministry official, Noda had planned to say nothing about the isles dispute, but he did prepare counterarguments if Wen repeated China’s claims over the islands. The issue was not brought up.
In fact, it was China that proposed the Nov. 20 trilateral meeting of economy and trade ministers.
Among economic partnership agreements involving Asian nations, Beijing attaches the most importance to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes the 10 ASEAN members and six other countries, including Japan, China, South Korea and India.
But Fu Ying, Chinese vice foreign minister, also described the FTA between Japan, China and South Korea as “a powerful engine to advance economic integration in the region.”
China’s eagerness to cement the two deals comes partly from its rivalry with the United States, which is stepping up its involvement in Asia on the political and security fronts while promoting the TPP.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Nov. 18 showed her intention of joining negotiations on the TPP to U.S. President Barack Obama in Bangkok.
Fu said the current series of meetings, including the East Asia Summit, are “the first important regional activities” after Xi Jinping’s leadership was established.
Beijing appears intent on keeping a lid on disagreements in the region, including its territorial disputes in the South China Sea with such countries as the Philippines and Vietnam.
Fu said the meetings were venues to promote cooperation, not ones to resolve disputes.
However, the confrontation between Japan and China over the Senkakus shows no signs of going away.
Although their economy and trade ministers met, Japan, China and South Korea decided against holding a meeting for the three leaders in the Cambodian capital.
Chinese maritime surveillance ships entered the contiguous zone next to Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands on Nov. 19. It was the 31st straight day for Chinese government vessels to enter the zone.
(This article was written by Atsushi Okudera and Naoto Inagaki.)
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