Eternal triangles

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2009, 12:00am

North Korea's intransigence has halted, at least for the time being, the six-party talks, which many had hoped would evolve into a permanent structure to promote peace and security in the region. There have been proposals that the remaining five parties - the US, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia - should hold a meeting to plan the way forward. But that is purely in terms of dealing with North Korea, rather than as a step towards creating a security structure for the region.

It is especially important, in the absence of a multilateral framework, for the major powers in the Asia-Pacific region to maintain regular dialogue. Currently, the US talks to its allies Japan and South Korea on a regular basis.

Recent media reports suggest that the US, China and Japan will hold their first three-way dialogue soon. This is the most encouraging news regarding the security and future of East Asia in some time. The trilateral discussions were proposed by China.

During the Bush administration, there was talk of various trilateral and other formats, which were often presented as associations of democracies. But, whenever that term is used, the unspoken understanding is that the target is China.

However, if there is to be a trilateral framework for East Asia, the natural one would consist of the US, China and Japan. They are not only key players in the region, they also happen to be the world's three biggest economies.

Triangular diplomacy was the speciality of Henry Kissinger during the Richard Nixon administration, when he improved relations with China to extract concessions from the Soviet Union and tilted the US towards Pakistan and away from India.

Today, what is needed is not to have two major countries ganging up against a third, but a dialogue to ensure that all three understand each other's long-term aspirations and policies so that there are no surprises.

In recent years, there has been suspicion on the part of each country - the US, China and Japan - about the long-term goals of the others.

For many years, China has been apprehensive that the US and Japan may work together to frustrate Beijing's desires where Taiwan is concerned. These fears were brought to the surface in February 2005 when Tokyo joined Washington for the first time in publicly identifying Taiwan as a common security concern. Beijing protested vehemently against what it described as interference in its internal affairs.

The US-Japan alliance, long seen by China as a threat, was described last year by a Chinese spokesman as 'a product of certain historic conditions' not appropriate in today's world.

However, now that cross-strait relations have improved so remarkably in the past year, Beijing is much less nervous about what outside powers may do.

This should make the holding of a trilateral dialogue easier. Another problem, of course, is South Korea, which may feel left out. One solution would be separate US-China-South Korea talks.

The US and China, the world's biggest developed and developing nations, have no choice but to work together on a host of issues, including climate change.

Similarly, geography dictates that China and Japan have little choice but to get along, even as China is inexorably rising and Japan's role will diminish by comparison. A three-way dialogue should help ensure that China is less suspicious of what plots the US and Japan may be hatching together.

Tokyo, too, can satisfy itself that the US is not moving into a G2 with China, leaving Japan out in the cold. American officials used to describe the US-Japan relationship as 'the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none'. Those words are rarely spoken now: when they are, they refer to China, not Japan.

Even Washington, the most powerful of the three, may wonder from time to time about the future loyalty of Japan, now that China has replaced it as Japan's biggest trading partner. Having a trilateral dialogue is in the interests of all three countries, as well as in the interests of the region and the world as a whole.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator