North East Asia is one of the most prosperous, most highly literate and most technologically advanced regions on the planet. But although North East Asia is known collectively as a place of innovation and quality production techniques, in the 21st century it should also become a place of peace and understanding.
At present, the biggest challenges facing the region are the Korean peace process, forging modern China-Japan and Korea-Japan ties and finally, ending any attempts at a hostile approach to China’s Cross-Strait issue. Each of these matters has a workable solution requiring effort and good will from all sides.
In respect of the internal Korean peace process, last year saw frequent expressions of personal good will between DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un and RoK President Moon Jae-in. At a collective level, both sides participated jointly in the Olympic Games and Asian Games. Other important developments included a new cooperative endeavour to jointly patrol the demilitarised zone (DMZ) dividing Korea while Seoul has broken ground on a new trans-Korean rail line.
While Pyongyang has expressed its commitment to de-nuclearization, early 2019 saw a retardation in the process of talks between the DPRK and United States. This stems from Washington refusing to gradually lift sanctions in accordance with steps taken by the DPRK to reduce and ultimately remove its nuclear program. Insofar as this is the case, Seoul as well as Beijing and Moscow have important neighbourly roles to play in helping to promote cooperation and compromise over a peace issue that will benefit Koreans on both sides as well as the region and world as a whole. If a treaty to formally end war in Korea is signed and progress can be made on de-nuclearization, Korea can still be the peaceful success story that millions want it to be.
In respect of tense DPRK-Japan relations, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reportedly reiterated to Donald Trump in a private phone conversation that he is willing to meet with Kim Jong-un without any preconditions. This is a unique offer which could potentially de-escalate the sustained negative state of relations between Pyongyang and Tokyo. If Abe and Kim are to meet, this would represent an historic step towards reconciliation in the region and would surely help to inject fresh optimism into the existing peace process.
Although Tsai Ing-wen clings onto power in Taipei, her era of rule seems to be nearing its end. Between her faction losing substantial support in last year’s local elections and growing support for the Kuomintang opposition in forthcoming elections, the issue of Cross-Strait relations appears to be gradually entering into a new era.
Seeing Taipei’s political forces adopt a cooperative approach will be beneficial for the Chinese people and could help pave the way for harmonious win-win approaches to internal development that could one day result in the expansion of the successful one country-two systems model.
This year’s Taiwan elections will prove to be an important factor in shaping a future in which the Cross-Strait issue can be transformed from one of caution into one of cooperation. When viewing these developments there is a spirit of cautious optimism that is growing among those interested in peaceful internal development for China.
Japan’s new emperor Naruhito is an important symbol of the possibilities for further win-win cooperation between China and Japan. Although Japan continues to have a different global outlook to China, neither country’s economy stands to gain anything from trying to compete with one another. As such, ever more frequent high level meetings to discuss economic issues between the two countries is a positive development while Japan itself could help to revitalise its economy through connectivity to the Belt and Road initiative. Although the Japanese Emperor no longer plays a political role in the country, President Xi Jinping’s fraternal greetings to Naruhito demonstrated a spirit of good will that can help to create further prosperity in North East Asia.
While the challenges to peace in North East Asia are clearly defined, solutions to each require a combination of patience, good will, pragmatism and above all, a desire to prioritise win-win economic connectivity. There is much reason for optimism to prevail so long as this spirit is matched by concrete action steps.