Japan Chair Platform: Trilateral Cooperation: Ushering in a New Era of Cooperation and Responsibility in Northeast Asia

  • Oct 1, 2012

    We are pleased to share the following remarks by Ambassador Shin Bong-kil, secretary-general of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS), delivered at a CSIS roundtable discussion on September 5, 2012. The views expressed herein are those of the secretary-general of the TCS and do not necessarily reflect the views of the governments of its member countries.

    Good afternoon, Distinguished Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen,

    It is a genuine honor for me to participate in this roundtable with so many distinguished colleagues and friends. First, let me thank Dr. Green and everyone here at the CSIS for inviting me to speak this afternoon. Thank you for your support and for this opportunity.

    Today, I am here to talk about trilateral cooperation among the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of Korea, and Japan and also to introduce the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS), which I am currently heading as its first Secretary-General. Before I do so, I’d like to offer you a broader context for these discussions.

    Broad Context

    I would say that there are two broad forces that are shaping the Northeast Asian region today. On the one hand, deepening economic ties and booming people-to-people exchanges are driving the three countries towards a greater integration than ever before. But on the other hand, there are equally powerful forces that are pulling these three nations apart, such as ongoing disputes over historical and territorial issues and rising nationalism.

    I would like to point out, however, that beneath the surface of a few headline grabbing setbacks, the three countries have had considerable progress in advancing trilateral cooperation. As you might be aware, the three countries have recently agreed to launch negotiations on Trilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) within this year, accelerating the prospects of an economic union that is comparable in size to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the European Union (EU). The three countries are also joining efforts to build an efficient logistics system across the region. This system will seamlessly connect the markets in Northeast Asia, paving the way for a coming era of free flows of goods, services, and labor in the region. The three countries now convene 18 ministerial meetings annually and have almost 60 trilateral consultative mechanisms spanning issues from climate change to renewable energy, and from disaster management to counter-terrorism. Indeed, the engine of trilateral cooperation is now running at full throttle, and it will not be slowed down.

    The Establishment of the TCS

    Perhaps, there is no better evidence of the tangible progress in trilateral cooperation than the establishment of its Secretariat. Just 12 years ago, when the leaders of all three countries held the first breakfast meeting on the sidelines of the 1999 ASEAN+3 Summit, it would have been difficult to imagine such a milestone achievement. However, after more than a decade of steady development in trilateral relations, in May 2010, the leaders of the three countries agreed to establish a permanent secretariat with a view to managing and developing trilateral cooperation in a more systematic and effective manner. With the agreement ratified the following year, the TCS was officially launched in September 2011 in Seoul as an international organization with privileges and immunities.

    Nowhere else in history have these three countries come together on equal footing to work side-by-side towards the same goal. They not only divide the operational budget of the TCS equally, but also the Secretary- General is appointed on a rotational basis with two years in office for each term. The two countries not assuming the Secretary-Generalship each appoint a Deputy Secretary-General. I am currently working with my two Deputies, Ms. Rui Matsukawa and Ms. Mao Ning, seconded by the Japanese and Chinese Foreign Ministries, respectively.

    The overarching objective of the TCS, as stated in its establishment agreement, is to contribute to the further promotion of cooperative relations among the three countries. To this end, its functions are fourfold. First, the TCS provides administrative and secretariat service to various trilateral meetings, from the Summit to working-level. Second, the TCS follows up on the progress of various trilateral agreements and then identifies further opportunities for cooperation. Third, the TCS submits an annual progress report of trilateral cooperation and compiles a comprehensive database of related documents. Fourth, the TCS conducts research, manages the TCS website, and promotes understanding of trilateral cooperation to the general public.

    With a small staff of less than 30 people comprised of three nationalities, our office represents the basic direction in which the three countries are heading, and that is: open, dynamic, and future-oriented partnership. When I see our staff working together, I am convinced that a young and cosmopolitan generation of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese will be able to overcome the unfortunate past that heavily weighed down their previous generation. They are the reason why I remain hopeful for the future of trilateral cooperation.

    Shared Fate, Shared Responsibilities

    Despite the temporary ups and downs, the simple fact remains that the three countries are bound by a shared fate. Because of geographical proximity, historical and cultural links, and deepening economic ties, they are dependent on one another for their well-being and prosperity. The Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 reminded us of their inevitable interdependence. The effects of the disaster were felt not only in Japan, but also in China and the ROK as well. Fortunately, the incident turned out to be an opportunity to foster a sense of community among the citizens of all three countries. After the earthquake, the ROK immediately dispatched rescue personnel, and China also spared no effort in assisting Japan’s post-disaster recovery. Confronted with common challenges, the three countries supported one another despite their differences.

    I believe that as major players in world affairs, China, the ROK, and Japan not only have a responsibility towards one another, but also towards the world at large. My own sense is shared by many observers of the region. Since I assumed the secretary-generalship last year, I have had the privilege and opportunity to speak with foreign dignitaries and experts within and outside the region, including some of you here today. I was deeply humbled and inspired by their expectations and hopes for trilateral cooperation and for this Secretariat. They say that the “three giants” joining forces will surely increase the roles and responsibilities of the trilateral partnership in the international community. Indeed, the challenges facing the region are increasingly global in nature, and I believe that a collective leadership of the three countries will be critical to effectively tackle these issues.

    Looking Ahead

    Now looking ahead, I would like to offer my views on the likely priorities that the TCS will need to focus on in the coming years. As the inaugural secretary-general, my biggest priority has been to chart a vision for this organization.

    First, I envision that the TCS will play a greater, more active role in exploring a diverse cooperative agenda for China, the ROK, and Japan. The Secretariat will not only facilitate existing cooperation, but also cultivate new ground for cooperation by developing concrete and pragmatic proposals. In this regard, we are currently coordinating cooperation in the field of disaster management. The TCS is initiating a joint effort on conducting a Trilateral Table Top Exercise to assist the three governments in disaster preparedness.

    Second, I envisage that the Secretariat will act as a think tank, providing relevant and timely policy analysis to policy makers of the three governments. As this organization expands to serve the needs of a growing list of trilateral cooperation mechanisms, it might be necessary to set up a research arm to provide expertise on the common issues affecting the region. As an independent, international organization, the TCS can offer a neutral platform for producing high-quality research and analysis as well as fostering informed public discussion. Currently, the TCS is organizing a Trilateral FTA seminar aimed at promoting a broader understanding of this important agenda amongst a multitude of actors across the region.

    Third, sitting at the center of Northeast Asia, the TCS is ideally positioned to bring together people from all across the region. From Seoul, it takes less than two hours to fly to major cities in Northeast Asia like Tokyo, Beijing, and Shanghai. I foresee that the TCS will evolve into a cross-border platform in which government and civil society representatives can meet to solve a wide range of issues facing the region. Let me give you an anecdotal example. A couple of months ago, a prominent Japanese civil society leader in the field of disaster management came to us and asked us to help identify his Chinese counterparts. Drawing support from us and from other organizations, his organization is now launching the Asia-Pacific Platform for Disaster Response. Just as this anecdote shows, I hope to build an organization that encourages dialogue, promotes collaboration, and builds bridges all across the region.

    In light of the rising tensions in bilateral relations of the three countries, you must be wondering what the future holds for trilateral cooperation. I believe that it is exactly in times like this, that this trilateral cooperation framework will prove to be invaluable in sustaining dialogue and cooperation in the region. That is why I would like to urge that the three countries remain focused on a long-term commitment to trilateral cooperation, not held back by bureaucratic red tape and domestic politics.

    Let me remind you that it took the EU 60 years since the European Coal and Steel Community began its work in 1952, to reach their current level of integration. And it took the ASEAN 45 years since the signing of the Bangkok Declaration in 1967 to consolidate their community building process. So in simple terms, give it a little time. Looking at how far our three countries have come in just a short time, I am optimistic that the forces of integration will eventually prevail in the Northeast Asian region. Let me wrap up my remarks on this positive note. I look forward to exchanging views with you this afternoon. Thank you for your attention.

    Japan Chair Platform is published by the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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