A moment of hope is lighting up the otherwise depressing world trade scenario. Japan and South Korea appear interested in stepping away from the altogether unwholesome practice of using the baton of trade to clobber each other to settle unrelated grievances. Anxieties spiked when the two neighbours removed each other from lists of trusted trade partners as a row over wartime reparations spilt into their national politics and across their borders. But over the last two weeks, they have unexpectedly made amends. Japan has twice relaxed export curbs to allow the shipments of key materials used by South Korea's computer chipmakers. Last week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in laid out a vision of an integrated East Asia that includes Japan as a key pillar. Today, their foreign ministers will discuss the dispute as they meet in Beijing for a trilateral forum that China is also party to.
It is unclear what concatenation of circumstances has brought on the thaw. China is thought to be more than an onlooker, keen to prevent tensions from seeping into talks to conclude the world's largest trading agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes the three nations, Asean and others. China wants the deal to be sealed by the year end to blunt the damage from its trade war with the United States. A trilateral free trade agreement linking China with Japan and South Korea, and in the works since 2002, is also in Beijing's sights. The US had good reasons to wade into the dispute but stayed out. Its two allies are the cornerstones of President Donald Trump's Indo-Pacific Strategy. And they need to stay aligned for the success of his outreach to North Korea. It will be a blow if an intelligence-sharing plan that lets Tokyo and Seoul swop notes on Pyongyang expires on Saturday due to unchecked tensions. There is no doubt that Japan and South Korea have the most to gain from a return to normalcy. The stiff encounter between their ministers at this month's Asean meetings fanned fears that nationalism and protectionism were going to dominate the discourse. In Beijing today, the two can give assurance that better sense will prevail. After all, historical disputes ought not to be allowed to hold the future to ransom and trip up prosperity of the next generation.