The Straits Times says: Keeping up trilateral momentum

Asians have cause for some satisfaction over the rare three-way meeting of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and South Korean President Park Geun Hye that took place recently.

One might hope their decision to revive the annual trilateral summit will help draw the economic powers closer after becoming consumed by long-festering grudges.

It is in Asia's interest to see a positive denouement of what authors Kent Calder and Min Ye call the North-east Asian political-economic paradox.

The region is both one of the world's most dynamic and among the most dangerous with all three possessing nuclear technology, alongside erratic North Korea.

With major cities in China, Japan and Korea all within three hours' flying time of Shanghai, this throbbing circle of 1.5 billion people, generating about a fifth of global economic production, could form the locus of either unprecedented power or instability, given the depth of their mutual historical bitterness.

Against such high stakes, one might be thankful the three leaders managed to just face each other across the table, even though they could not see eye to eye on thorny issues, like Japan's practice of sex slavery during World War II.

Contentious matters will take more time, with every year of inaction representing a huge opportunity cost lost to them and Asia as a whole. Turning the Shanghai Circle into a free trade zone, for example, could benefit all their flagging economies, in particular China and South Korea which are not part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership - an ambitious pact involving 12 regional economies, including the United States and Japan.

Given the interdependence of North-east Asian economies (production resources, for example, are complementary), it makes eminent sense to let trade be the focus of renewed efforts to build bridges among the three.

Certainly, there can be no illusion about the obstacles in the path of substantive agreement on key matters. Take the symbolism of Japanese leaders' visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, linked with war criminals.

Even when Mr Abe chose to stay away of late, the shrine saw offerings from him, as well as a visit by his wife. To demonstrate good faith, actions must live up to conciliatory statements, especially when mutual suspicions about nationalism and historical revisionism run rife.

So, where territorial claims are concerned, diplomatic declarations of protecting freedom of navigation and overland flights should not be put in doubt by displeasure shown when free passage is put to the test, as happened recently when a United States naval vessel sailed in international waters close to artificial islands built by Beijing in a disputed area of the South China Sea.

To help resolve the North-east Asia paradox, such contradictions must be dealt with squarely by all in a much-needed spirit of regionalism.

This article was first published on Nov 10, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.