New priorities: Is Beijing stepping back from the South China Sea disputes?

China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. 2013China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. Asitimes / Wikimedia Commons

Japan, South Korea and China recently held a meeting for the first time in five years to discuss missile tests by Pyongyang. This thawing in relations, suggests the possibility of both diplomatic and economic progress on a raneg of issues.

By Dung Phan

The three foreign ministers of Japan, China and South Korea recently met in Tokyo in a rare display of unity. This meeting was not about trading ties or political tensions; instead, North Korea’s latest submarine missile test.

In the meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated; cooperation between the three countries is crucial for regional peace and stability.

In fact, tensions between Japan, China and South Korea have risen in recent months. There have been about 30 intrusions by Chinese government vessels into several Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea, setting off more than two dozen protests from Japan since August 5.

The Japanese government also cancelled a trip of South Korean lawmakers to visit disputed islands claimed by both countries. Meanwhile, China has repeatedly expressed opposition to the planned US missile defence shield in South Korea which is seen as a threat.

Influenced by outsiders

Despite increasing frictions, North Korea’s missile launch might provide the three countries with an opportunity to find something in common. Both Japan and South Korea have regularly criticised Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile development. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said it is “simply not tolerated” while Yun Byung-se reiterated the three “must deter North Korea’s further provocative actions.”

Beijing shares the same sentiment but is also keen to reinforce their opposition to cooperation on missile-building between South Korea and the US. China’s state-run Global Times published an editorial, blaming the influence of outsiders like North Korea and the US making deals “beyond the current problem-solving mechanisms of the three countries” and adding “the US that is still obsessed with the obsolete Cold War mindset.”

Economic pressure

The fact is that this is the first time a foreign ministers dialogue with China has been held in Japan since Xi Jinping took power in China in 2012. And this might be a hint of Shinzo Abe’s intentions on the economic as well as the diplomatic front.

There has been a plunge in Japan’s business with China and South Korea. And Japanese exports to China falling at an annual rate of 9% in the first half of 2016 is the cause of a sharply declining trend of Japanese profits overseas. Direct investments in China by the Japanese has also decreased 20% over the last three years; without any significant improvement expected in the near future. The situation with South Korea is even much worse as the country witnesses a plummet in both export and direct investments; down 12.9% and 82.5% respectively.

It is certain that no country wants a drop in trade with the region’s biggest market, China. The one country alone currently makes up 25% of South Korean exports and China’s large presence in many Korean industries proves that any damage in economic relations could lead to a huge loss.

Changes on marine disputes?

Looking at the other two points of the diplomatic triangle, ties between Japan and South Korea have been strained over the past few years. However, positive changes are expected after a Japanese agreement to provide $9.81m over the “comfort woman” issue where, during wartime, Korean women were forced to provide sexual services to the Japanese military.

In the meantime, relations between China and Japan show no progress. In the meeting in early August, Wang Yi even called Shinzo Abe “a person with a split personality” while China’s top diplomat said Abe’s efforts cannot be trusted.

Looking forward economic pressures mean it is likely that China will play a key role in the multilateral dialogue. It too wants to secure access to markets, but these talks need to be carefully managed. China has warned Japan not to cross a “red line” and join the US in pushing for free movement for navigation patrols in the South China Sea.

Analysts point out that it seems China’s activities in the South China Sea are dying down just to tone down tensions before the G20 summit in September. Perhaps this meeting has similar intentions. After five years of silence between the three countries, the important thing is almost certainly that they happened at all.