SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - During their meeting Tuesday (Dec 24) in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, leaders from South Korea, China and Japan endorsed an earlier decision by their trade ministers to accelerate negotiations on a trilateral free trade agreement.
Few people appear to be aware that talks on such a deal have been held over the past six years.
The latest and 16th round of negotiations held in Seoul in November drew little attention, having made little headway from previous discussions.
Trade ministers from the three nations met in Beijing on Sunday (Dec 22) and agreed to step up efforts to conclude a comprehensive and high-level free trade accord.
By giving weight to the agreement, the trilateral summit of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a significant impetus to the stalled negotiations.
When the negotiations started in 2013 after a decade-long feasibility study, some experts cautioned that building a free trade framework encompassing the three countries would be a long process, given differences in levels of economic development and differing interests in many areas.
In fact, the process has proved thornier and more complex, hampered by a string of diplomatic, security and historical disputes in addition to technical difficulties.
South Korea drew reprisals from China over its decision in 2016 to have the US deploy an advanced anti-missile system here.
Tokyo imposed export curbs against Seoul in July amid escalating discord over the issue of compensating Koreans forced to work for Japanese firms during Japan's colonial rule of the peninsula.
The partial easing of its export controls last week fell far short of easing Seoul's countermeasures against Tokyo.
The trilateral summit, which is supposed to be held annually, had been suspended for four years since it last took place in Seoul in 2015.
At the time, Mr Li and Mr Abe came to Seoul to meet then-President Park Geun-hye. Sunday's gathering of trade ministers from the three countries also marked the first of its kind in more than three years.
There is no doubt that the three sides could still reactivate the process of tripartite cooperation in the economic field if they manage to separate economics from sensitive matters concerning security and history.
The benefits that can be expected from the conclusion of the three-way trade accord are more than worth the hard work of negotiations to resolve historical antagonism and diplomatic rows.
Amid rising protectionism and an economic slowdown across the globe, a free trade pact grouping the three Northeast Asian countries would increase commerce among them and boost the growth of their economies.
Korea, China and Japan, which boast the world's 11th, second- and third-largest economies, respectively, have a combined gross domestic product of over $16 trillion (S$21 trillion), accounting for one-fifth of global GDP.
But the volume of trade among them accounts for about 19 per cent of their total external commerce - far less than 24 per cent for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; 42 per cent for the US, Mexico and Canada, which have concluded a new trade accord; and 65 per cent for EU members.
A comprehensive, high-level free trade pact among the three Northeast Asian economic powerhouses could facilitate a broader economic integration of the Asia-Pacific region.
If so, South Korea, China and Japan might find themselves presenting a rare and unique united front against US President Donald Trump's persistent protectionism, which has put them under heavier pressure to reduce trade surpluses with the world's biggest economy.
It can also be hoped that their enhanced trade and economic ties would spill over into security and political areas, laying the cornerstone for peace and stability in East Asia as a whole.
South Korea is in a position to play a bridging and catalytic role between China and Japan in reaching a trilateral free trade deal.
China and Japan have tended to compete to take the lead in setting up a new free trade framework for the Asia-Pacific region, with the Trump administration retreating from the multilateral trade order.
Given its experience in sealing free trade deals with many countries around the world and the absence of any hegemonic agenda, Korea could mediate between China and Japan and succeed in steering them toward a trilateral free trade accord.
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