Interview with See-Won Byun, Center for U.S.- Korea Policy

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What is the current evolution of China-Korea-Japan relations? Equilibri interviewed Ms See-Won Byun, Researcher at the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy. Ms Buyn holds a B.A. in economics from Brown University; M.A. in Chinese area studies from Yonsei University; M.A. in international affairs from The George Washington University.


 

Equilibri: What do scholars mean when they talk about the "Korea-China-Japan triangle" ? Do they refer specifically to the economic realm?

See-Won Byun: The Korea-China-Japan trilateral relationship has been understood as primarily economic since the three countries promoted three-way cooperation in the context of ASEAN+3 in the 1990s.  But within the recent few years this cooperation has expanded to include a range of functional areas, which has been institutionalized most notably through the trilateral summit launched in 2008.  Although prospects for this trilateral as a security mechanism remains uncertain, their current 10-year plan envisions a comprehensive partnership that raises an interesting question of whether economic cooperation can lead to the security cooperation that has been lacking in the region.  The Korea-China-Japan triangle can also be understood in comparison to other "strategic triangles" in the region, namely U.S.-Japan-Korea (U.S. allies) and U.S.-Japan-China (major powers), and may be distinguished as an "exclusively Asian" grouping focused on common regional issues.
 
EQ: Some analysts argue that the Fukushima tragedy could set up momentum to boost negotiations for the long-discussed trilateral FTA. What is your take on the matter?

SWB: I don't think the momentum surrounding the Fukushima tragedy can necessarily be linked to prospects for the trilateral FTA.  Again, it comes to the question of whether and how political issues can affect economic cooperation and vice versa.  The Fukushima tragedy did drive renewed solidarity but the reemergence of Japan-Korea textbook and Japan-China territorial issues demonstrated the ongoing bilateral political constraints to cooperation.  At the same time the three countries have actively promoted economic cooperation including FTA partnership both bilaterally and trilaterally despite deep-rooted and unresolved political issues.  But a three-way FTA depends on progress in the bilateral FTAs among the three countries, whose prospects remain uncertain, and is regarded more difficult the more China catches up economically.  An FTA with China also has important strategic implications for the U.S. allies.
 
EQ: Who do you think Japan is more worried about in terms of economic competition? Is it Seoul or Beijing?

SWB: Both Japan and South Korea see China as the major economic competitor in the long run; especially as China has shifted to higher-end production the perception of China as an economic challenge rather than an opportunity has grown.  Like Korea, or perhaps more so, Japan is concerned not only about rising economic competition from China but more importantly the strategic implications of China's growing regional power and influence including military buildup, which among Japanese observers appears to be a greater long-term security concern than North Korea.  The China-Japan dispute over the Senkakku/Diaoyu Islands last year also heightened concerns about China's potential use of economic leverage in managing political/security relations and these concerns will likely continue.
 
EQ: How much does nationalism play a role in the region and affects economic relations?

SWB: Nationalism has historically played a major role in Northeast Asian relations but the economic impact is unclear.  The Koguryo, Dokdo/Takeshima, Senkakku/Diaoyu disputes all represent issues of nationalism that have required political management and have been managed in favor of economic cooperation.  E.g. China-Korea economic trade growth has accelerated despite the Koguryo "history war".  Economic interdependence is likely to continue to minimize escalation of such disputes, but key challenges ahead are the implications of China's economic rise and the domestic political transitions in the region that may make regional partners more internally-focused.  Ironically, with closer relations the potential nationalistic retaliation may also be stronger when those historical/territorial issues come up again.
 
EQ: Some argues that it is true, economic integration has advanced in East and South East Asia in recent years. However, the argument goes, FTA has been signed only by smaller countries (in economic terms) or by powerful countries with weaker ones (China with ASEAN for instance). There's no sign of FTAs signed between the bigger economies. As a result, economic integration is stil far behind being a successull story. What do you think?

SWB: Economic integration can still be considered a remarkable success in the region especially given the enduring political challenges.  Although Northeast Asia remains far behind Southeast Asia, the progress in bilateral trade and investment is notable.  In addition to being economically feasible and attractive, economic integration must also be strategically sustainable.  The main emerging challenge to Asian economic integration is how to bring together China-centered economic integration and not only the US model of economic regionalism (including KORUS FTA, TPP) but also the U.S. alliance-based security network in the region, a question that challenges broader Asian regionalism especially for U.S. allies like South Korea.

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