Originally Published 2011-05-27 00:00:00 Published on May 27, 2011
On the sidelines of the trilateral Northeast Asian Summit in Tokyo, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak visited some of the worst affected areas in Fukushima and freely moved with the victims and publicly tasted vegetables and fruits to dispel the public fear about radiation.
The Fourth Trilateral Summit in Northeast Asia on a Mature Track
Northeast Asia has been rather slow in evolving a security or economic forum of its own predominantly due to the existence of serious territorial or sovereignty issues which were created during the cold war, but have still not been resolved. While Northeast Asian countries participate in such forums like the ARF and APEC, they themselves have not been able to fashion one for their own region. In this context, one should attach considerable importance to the evolving annual trilateral summit meetings between China, Japan and South Korea since 2008. The Tokyo Summit held on 21-22 May 2011 was the fourth of its kind. Some of the subjects discussed at the Summit and the decisions taken thereof carried a great deal of importance and relevance and if successfully implemented, they would go a long way in enhancing the level of cooperation and mutual understanding between the three countries.

Before an attempt is made to examine the major results of the fourth summit, it would be appropriate to keep in mind the immediate circumstances that preceded the meeting. The first and foremost aspect of this year's summit is that it was held against the backdrop of the terrible earthquake-tsunami-nuclear reactor crisis of March 11 in Japan and China's spontaneous response to extend assistance to Japan in terms of fuel supplies and expert advice had created a good impression among the official circles in Japan. Of equal importance was the favourable impression of the common Japanese people who greatly appreciated the way the Chinese rescuers helped several Japanese people in that hour of unprecedented crisis. In a way, the crisis created an opportunity for both countries to think how despite their various political differences, they could spontaneously cooperate with each other in a catastrophic situation. The Chinese were also reminded of the similar Japanese response following a terrible earthquake in Szechuan, Southwest China, in 2008 when more than 80,000 people reportedly lost their lives.

Visit to Fukushima: Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak visited some of the worst affected areas in Fukushima, and Miyagi prefectures and freely moved with the victims of the disaster to cheer them up. In a bid to dispel the public fear about radiation in the locally grown food products, they tasted some of the vegetables and fruits to create confidence among consumers both in Japan and abroad. In their joint communiqué, both Wen and Lee promised to remove the ban on the import of Japanese products as soon as they are considered safe. They were the first foreign dignitaries to visit the disaster-affected Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures and as such their visits sought to demonstrate that "Japan is safe and the Japanese food is safe." Premier Wen's disclosure that he decided on his own to visit the disaster-affected areas did make a good impression on his Japanese hosts. His appreciation of the Japanese people's calmness and dignity in facing the disaster further found a great resonance among the Japanese people who felt encouraged by Wen's words. It was also noted in Japan that Chinese President Hu Jintao himself made a rare gesture a week after the disaster by visiting the Japanese embassy in Beijing to record his condolences.

Cooperation in disaster management: Considering the frequency with which Northeast Asia has faced serious natural disasters in recent years, one uppermost consideration in the minds of the three summit leaders was the urgent need to cooperate to reduce human sufferings. Recognizing the need to help each other in times of disaster and adversity, they promised to work towards building a comprehensive framework to prevent the recurrence of a similar nuclear disaster. Their statement on disaster management has spelt out clearly several measures that they would jointly take like: a) conducting exercise and enhancing capacity; b) ensuring speedy communication in case of occurrence of a disaster; c) enhancing cooperation in providing assistance; and d) promoting technology and information -sharing on disaster management.

Addressing the question of energy security, the three leaders recognized that while nuclear energy would continue to be an important option for many energy starved countries, it was equally essential to ensure a framework that would guard against the recurrence of such tragedies like Fukushima. Keen to avoid an excessive dependence on nuclear energy, the three leaders showed their support for encouraging joint programmes on renewable energy and energy conservation. In fact, Japan is now seriously reviewing its overall energy policy which is likely to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear power by a new target of generating 20% of electricity from renewable resources by 2020. Energy security is one area where the interests of the three countries converge and there is a vast scope for trilateral cooperation at different levels.

Trade and investment: Trade relations between the three countries have expanded markedly in recent years and China and South Koreas have been among the biggest trading partners of Japan. Since the Tsunami disaster has badly affected Japan's supply chain, its exports have been severely affected and many companies like Toyota Motors have had to cut down their production both in Japan and abroad. Realizing the important role of trade as an integrating factor, the three countries have shown strong interest in exploring the prospects of formulating a trilateral free trade agreement (FTA) . Already a joint study committee composed of government officials, academic and business people has been set up and it will make its recommendations on the prospective trade agreement by 2012. But considering the overlapping interests of the three countries in a vast number of areas, it will not be an easy task to reconcile their competing interests and it will take quite some time before they make mutual adjustments to strike an agreement.

The idea of a regional FTA has aroused considerable enthusiasm among the business circles in all the three countries and they consider such an agreement would speed up regional economic integration. They also welcome a trilateral investment agreement that would further strengthen economic partnership among the three countries. But all these proposals will take time to materialize as had been seen in several such cases in other regions.

Regional and global issues: Showing a broad support for the de-nuclearization of North Korea, the three countries expressed their concern regarding North Korea's uranium enrichment programme. They believed that concrete actions should be taken to resume the Six-Party talks. They welcomed the role played by the ARF, APRC and the East Asian Summit in strengthening regional integration and attached importance to the participation of the US and Russia in the East Asian Summit. They also believed that their positions converge on issues like global warming and climate change and that cooperative efforts alone could ensure the environmentally sustainable development.

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