Alexandra Sakaki, Gudrun Wacker

China – Japan – South Korea

A Tense Ménage à Trois

SWP Research Paper 2017/RP 05, April 2017, 34 Pages

China, Japan and South Korea are the largest economies in East Asia and, as such, play a decisive role in the region’s prosperity and security. Their relations with each other, however, are increasingly marked by tensions in the absence of a regional organisation or institution playing a stabilising role. This study considers a constellation that has so far received little attention, namely the cooperation between these three states, which began in the late 1990s and has since established itself as an independent format. The study’s central question is whether this trilateral cooperation can bring forth a new model of interaction in Northeast Asia, or whether it only confirms and reproduces existing (and predominantly negative) trends. The research has two focal points: it analyses developments within the three sets of bilateral relations, and provides a systematic overview of the extent of this trilateral cooperation to date. It shows that tensions within the Northeast-Asian triangle are caused not only by historic, territorial and maritime conflict, but also by the increasing competition between the US and China for primacy in the Asia-Pacific. To date trilateral cooperation between Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul therefore has a mixed but overall modest balance sheet, especially in security policy. The format is nevertheless significant in that it provides an institutional framework for exchanging views and keeps open channels of communication below “high politics”, even in times of heightened bilateral tensions.

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