It is true that Korea, China, and Japan have had ups and downs and sometimes conflicts throughout their long history. However, the risks of the traditional and non-traditional security areas faced by the three countries in the rapidly changing international order are essentially the same to the security and development of each country. In order to solve these challenges, common consensus and cooperation from the three countries are required. Vision and philosophy based on the keynote of ‘Korea-China-Japan three in one’ are what we need, not the exclusion. This was confirmed once again by President Yoon Suk-yeol, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s emphasis on practical cooperation during the trilateral summit between the three countries at the ASEAN+3 summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The basic infrastructure of trilateral cooperation is strong in economic and human relations, and the three countries are willing to cooperate in various ways for peace and development of the region. In 2019, the leaders of the three countries announced Trilateral Cooperation Vision for the next decade in Chengdu, China, as a three-nation cooperation vision for the next decade, and since the establishment of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS) in 2011, the three countries have been seeking, proposing, and promoting practical cooperation as best they can.

This week’s interview features Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat Secretary General Ou Boqian to learn more about the future of trilateral cooperation, from someone who is always thinking about the topic.

The ambassador was appointed the secretary general at the 6th Consultative Board of the TCS in September 2021. She joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China (MOFA) in 1989 and has served at multiple diplomatic offices in various regions and countries since then. Most recently, she served as the Ambassador to Grenada from 2013 to 2017 before working as the Vice President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs from 2017 to 2021.

Hwang: What is the current status and level of trilateral cooperation between the TCS members, Korea, China, and Japan?

Ou: Looking at developments that happened within the 6th Consultative Board’s term, trilateral cooperation has seen continuous efforts made by the three countries in the fields of non-traditional security and political affairs. The 13th Top Regulators’ Meeting was held in November 2021, during which ministries shared updates on status and progress regarding nuclear safety activities in each country. In July 2022, the Trilateral Ministerial Meeting on Disaster Management was held, in which the three governments introduced key disaster prevention policies and experiences in response to increasingly more frequent and intense natural disasters. Various other intergovernmental dialogues also continued at the working level. In addition, outside of official government channels, Track 1.5 and Track 2 dialogue also kept alive the momentum of trilateral cooperation. The 6th Network of Trilateral Cooperation Think-Tanks (NTCT) National Focal Points Meeting and the 2021 NTCT Conference were convened in December, in which universities and research institutes discussed ideas on trilateral economic cooperation in the post COVID-19 Era and trilateral security cooperation in the long run.

In the area of economic cooperation, trilateral Cooperation gained substantial outcomes. In November 2021, the government bodies in charge of intellectual property held the 21st TRIPO Head Meeting, reporting respectively on the current status of their national IP systems, and reviewed the latest TRIPO cooperation activities in the areas of trademark and design, trial and appeal, human resources, and IP societies. The next month, the 9th Consultative Meeting on Consumer Policy among China, Japan and Korea was held online, where participants exchanged information on each country’s consumer policy trends and issues in the era of COVID-19 such as e-commerce, misleading representations and SDGs, as well as cross-border enforcement cooperation and consumer dispute resolution. The three countries also kept deepening cooperation in the field of sustainable development. The 22nd Tripartite Environment Ministers’ Meeting was held online in December 2021.

In the area of socio-cultural cooperation, the Culture City of East Asia (CCEA) program continues to thrive, a program in which every year one city in each is selected from among the cities in the three countries that are aiming to develop their ties through culture and the arts; that city hosts a variety of cultural and artistic events to introduce modern arts and culture, traditional culture, and various lifestyles. In October 2021, the 14th China-Japan-ROK Cultural Content Industry Forum was held. Later in December, the 14th Tripartite Health Ministers’ Meeting was convened online.

Hwang: The three countries declared their vision for the future in Chengdu in 2019, but still, I assume that there must have been inevitably limited cooperation over the past few years due to COVID-19. What outcomes and results have you achieved since your appointment?

Ou: The TCS has devoted itself to keeping the steady momentum of the Trilateral Cooperation against the backdrops of the unprecedented difficulties and challenges. In the 14 months since the 6th Consultative Board’s appointment, the TCS witnessed the giant vessel of Trilateral Cooperation keeping its pace by continuing the mechanisms and dialogues mainly through online channels. As previously mentioned, a series of ministerial-level meetings have taken place since the inauguration of this Consultative Board, in which the TCS played a supporting role. Trilateral Cooperation mechanical projects at various levels across all spectrums, were convened and carried out successfully, giving strong impetus to the post-pandemic recovery of the economy and socio-cultural exchanges of the three countries against the headwinds of the changing situation in this region. The TCS contributed its due part by faithfully fulfilling its functions as mandated.

Beyond the inter-governmental mechanisms, the TCS has carried out many of its own initiatives as well. In November 2021, the TCS, alongside United Nations organizations, hosted a high-level forum on the carbon neutrality goals of the three nations, in which officials and leading experts from national and international organizations deliberated on the implications of the COP26 outcome on national climate actions, and identified potential areas and modalities for cooperation between the three countries and with other developing countries. In February 2022, we carried out two youth exchange programs, the Young Ambassador Program and the Trilateral Youth Speech Contest, bringing together young people from different countries utilizing creative online methods. Likewise, March 2022 saw the introduction of the inaugural Virtual Marathon, where runners made full use of mobile applications and a dedicated website to run together, despite the physical limitations caused by the pandemic.

Apart from the above, the TCS also launched online the Trilateral Statistics Hub, a one-stop location for various indicators related to the trilateral cooperation. The TCS also released numerous publications, such as the An Evolving Trilateral Cooperation: Reality and Outlook, the Trilateral Economic Report, and the Research Report on CJK Local City Exchange 2022, which all broaden public awareness of trilateral cooperation and TCS while reaching out to the public.

Hwang: How would you evaluate the history of TCS over the past 11 years? I am curious about the achievements and challenges that TCS has had in its history.

Ou: The past decade since the establishment of TCS is no doubt a crucial phase in the course of trilateral cooperation. Having gone through a global economic crisis, the Trilateral Cooperation became more vigorous; not only its scope of cooperation expanded to nearly 30 pragmatic areas, but also the cooperation itself morphed into a genuinely institutionalized framework, with the Trilateral Summit Meeting as the heart, the 21 Ministerial Meetings as the brain, over 70 working-level consultations and dialogues as the body, and more than 100 projects as its outcomes. Successful projects such as the CAMPUS Asia student exchange program and Culture City of East Asia local government exchange program, launched in the first half of the last decade, have continuously reshaped our perceptions towards the true meaning of trilateral cooperation. Regardless of disparities, there is endless potential to unleash it if it serves the well-being of the people in the three countries.

The establishment of the TCS as a permanent secretariat, further ensures a steady development of the Trilateral Cooperation in the context of dynamic changes in regional and international landscapes as well as ups-and-downs in bilateral relations. The development of TCS can roughly be divided into two chapters. The first half of the decade from 2011 to 2015 was the period of organization building and quantitative growth. Beginning to communicate with various ministries and departments, TCS focused on broadening its reach in existing governmental cooperation platforms from the working to ministerial level. It was this solid foundation that paved the way for the second chapter of TCS, which can be characterized by qualitative growth through pragmatic contributions in both governmental and non-governmental sectors. Since 2016, TCS began to propose and implement more cooperative projects on topics such as economy, education, environment, culture and disaster management. The International Forum for Trilateral Cooperation, the Trilateral Journalist Exchange Program, the Trilateral Entrepreneurs’ Forum, and the Trilateral Common Vocabulary Dictionary are some of TCS’ flagship projects.

Hwang: What is the particular reason for Korea, China, and Japan to cooperate? Why do we actually need it?

Ou: As important members of the international community, China, Japan and Korea are the engines of global economic development. According to the Statistics Hub of TCS, the GDP of the three countries rank second, third and tenth in the world in 2021, and the total economic volume accounts for 25.5% of the world’s total; the trade volume of the three countries accounts for 21.9% of the world’s total, and patent applications account for 50.7% of the world’s total; Container port throughput accounts for 36.9% of the world’s total. These figures clearly show that China, Japan and Korea are economically active, innovative and powerful. Such cooperation between the three countries has a pivotal position and influence in the world. The cooperation among the three countries is on a win-win basis which has been bringing concrete outcomes to the people of the region and even beyond. A cooperative, prosperous and stable Northeast Asia is no doubt the common interest and shared value of the region. So that the trilateral cooperation is not optional but rather imperative.

Hwang: Could you assess the environment for promoting trilateral cooperation these days?

Ou: The world we live in today is turbulent, and its changes have not been profound like this in a century. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, the geopolitical environment is getting worse, the international security situation is turbulent, and traditional and non-traditional security threats are on the rise. The world economic growth continues to slow down, major economies face the risk of economic recession, the problem of unbalanced development among countries is exacerbated, the global industrial chain and supply chain are readjusted, and the prices of energy, food and bulk commodities continue to rise, which intensifies inflation in various countries. The surge of dollar appreciation intensifies the inflation output of the United States, and made the currencies of many countries, including China, Japan and Korea, face extremely severe depreciation pressure.

Hwang: Can you explain both the pros and cons of this issue?

Ou: At the same time, the trilateral cooperation also faces complex internal challenges. Due to historical, territorial and other reasons, the three countries continue to experience difficulties in bilateral relations and weak political mutual trust. The mature and stable industrial chain and supply chain between the three countries are also facing challenges due to interference from external factors. Due to the reduction of face-to-face communication opportunities and the amplification effect of the online world, it is difficult to effectively identify the “massive” information on the internet, especially negative and even deepfaked information. There is a downward trend in mutual favorability.

But the shared culture of China, Japan and Korea tells us such a fact: the more difficult times are, the more we must strengthen our confidence. Looking back at the history of trilateral cooperation, we can clearly know that the more crises and challenges we face, the more important the strategic significance of the trilateral cooperation is. Because of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 that China, Japan, Korea and ASEAN countries joined hands to deal with it, that the prosperity and stability of the region could be maintained. After more than 20 years of development, the trilateral cooperation has become a stabilizer and driving force for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia. Trilateral cooperation was born in response to common crises and has been strengthened in the process of jointly responding to larger crises.

Hwang: How can the three governments promote trilateral cooperation?

Ou: In the face of complex internal and external challenges, we must clearly realize that trilateral cooperation is the key to maintaining peace and security, economic prosperity and people’s happiness in Northeast Asia. The cooperation among the three countries should be strengthened in the following areas:

First, to accumulate political mutual trust. The governments of the three countries should strive to maintain close communication and avoid the suspension of the trilateral cooperation mechanism due to difficulties in bilateral relations. The trilateral cooperation and bilateral relations should complement each other to form a virtuous circle. The more difficulties the bilateral relationship encounters, the less it should harm the trilateral cooperation.

Second, to consolidate the ties of economic and trade interests. The three countries should continue to implement the RCEP agreement, continue to promote trade and investment liberalization and facilitation and strive to promote innovation cooperation between the three countries in various fields such as digital economy, green economy, supply chain, industrial chain, smart agriculture and advanced manufacturing. Especially when the global supply chain is restructured and more emphasis is placed on regionality and security, it is more important to strengthen trilateral cooperation to maintain the resilience of the industrial chain and supply chain.

Third, to strengthen policy communication and coordination for a stable financial situation. The three countries should maintain communication on financial and monetary policies, work with ASEAN countries to maintain financial stability in East Asia, ensure long-term fiscal sustainability, and jointly deal with downside risks of the regional economy and the negative spillover effects, so as to ensure that the East Asian economy can withstand the downside risks of the global economy.

Hwang: The expression ‘people’s happiness’ is quite impressive.

Ou: Besides the improvements in economic security circumstances, it is to restore and expand people-to-people and cultural exchanges in the region. By holding more and richer face-to-face cultural exchange activities, people from all fields of the three countries, especially young people, can deepen mutual understanding and friendship, enhance mutual recognition and goodwill, and build a strong public opinion foundation for mutual trust and cooperation among the three countries.

Hwang: Would you introduce any cases if there are any key projects that you would like to pursue during your remaining period?

Ou: First, we plan to hold the annual Trilateral Entrepreneurs’ Forum. We will also carry out our annual Trilateral Journalist Exchange Program as a tour for journalists as well as SNS influencers of the three countries, promoting Culture Cities of East Asia across China, Japan, and Korea. The Trilateral Visionary Group is also another concept we have under preparation, in which we will invite high-level politicians/governmental officials or renowned academics specializing in strategic planning of the three countries to attend closed strategic dialogues and share visionary insights on the progress, challenges, and opportunities of the trilateral cooperation in political, economic, and socio-cultural areas. We will also be implementing projects that engage all sectors of the three countries. This includes our annual flagship program, the International Forum for Trilateral Cooperation, which brings together eminent scholars/policy makers to share and offer new insights into the political climate, economic cooperation, and social-cultural ties among the three countries. Next year, we plan to return to our rotational hosting pattern with our first forum outside of Korea, to be held in Qingdao, China. We also plan to hold the Young Scholars’ Forum back-to-back with the previous forum, in which rising scholars of the three countries present their research on the various facets of Northeast Asian relations, and network with other like-minded scholars, broadening existing regional cooperation by involving young leaders with new perspectives, and opening a dialogue to address timely issues. Speaking of youth, which is the key area of the TCS’ efforts, we will also be giving special attention to them in February next year when we hold our inaugural Youth Month, when we unveil the Trilateral Youth Exchange Network, which will integrate our existing youth programs to promote interaction between participants and alumni, and to provide a platform for the exchange of experiences and mutual learning for young people from the three countries.

By Hwang Jae-ho

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the Division of International Studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and a current member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.

By Hwang Jae-ho ([email protected])

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