|Most Westerners would find it hard to tell Koreans from Chinese or Japanese if they were dressed the same and remained silent. Actually, however, there may be no other group of nations on this planet that might feel more estranged from one another, ethnically and historically.
Which may explain why it took a “decade of study” before their leaders agreed in Beijing Sunday to start negotiations on a trilateral free trade agreement by the year’s end.
If realized, the three-nation FTA promises huge economic potential. Together, Korea, China and Japan account for one-fifth of the world’s population and gross domestic product, and one-sixth of its trade. Yet trade among the three represents only 20 percent of their combined total, compared with intra-regional trade shares of 60 percent for the 27-member EU, and 40 percent for the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
It is also desirable for the three regional layers to decide to join forces for ensuring stability, peace and prosperity in this part of the world. Especially so at a time when the tension on the Korean Peninsula keeps rising in the wake of North Korea’s failed launch of a long-distance rocket and the escalating war or words between Seoul and Pyongyang.
Behind the long-awaited accord, however, are the political calculations of the three countries. Beijing wants to break an ever-closing U.S. diplomatic siege through economic union with its Northeast Asian neighbors. Seoul hopes tighter economic ties with China would help to tilt Beijing closer toward the South in inter-Korean rivalry. Japan, alarmed by South Korea’ active push for an ``FTA hub,” is going all out to escape from its isolation in regional trade and diplomacy.
Various political and economic factors show it’s too early _ and risky _ for Seoul to remain upbeat with only the bright side of breaking trade barriers with its nearest partners.
Above all, the free and open competition with the two economic giants, both of whose economies are at least six times larger than Korea’s, will be quite an uphill battle. Korea has long been sandwiched between high-tech Japan and low-cost China and few here can tell for sure if the three-nation FTA would improve the situation instead of aggravating it.
Japan’s weak political leadership, which has seen six new prime ministers in as many years, also darkens the prospects for the smooth progress of the bargaining. No less worrisome is China’s half-baked market economy system, as shown in numerous instances of infringing on foreign intellectual property rights and uneven implementation of laws and regulations, which vary in different provinces.
The ongoing crisis of EU shows that an economic bloc or union is difficult to make and maintain even among countries with similar historical and cultural backgrounds. It will be far harder for the three Northeast Asian nations to seek a similar goal, given their long historical and territorial disputes. Even during the two-day summit, Beijing showed different approaches to inter-Korean tension from Seoul, while the Japanese leader almost snubbed his South Korean counterpart’s demand with respect to handling the wartime sex slavery issue outright.
By all appearances, this should be a time for utmost circumspection, not hasty optimism.