Poised for takeoff


When addressing the opening ceremony of the plenary session of the sixth Eastern Economic Forum on Sept 3, President Xi Jinping said: “The international landscape is going through profound transformation. The COVID-19 pandemic keeps raging with frequent flare-ups, and the world economy faces a daunting recovery. This presents regional cooperation in Northeast Asia with both stern challenges and important opportunities. All parties should ground themselves in regional realities while adopting a global perspective and join hands to tide over the difficult time and plan for common development.”

Northeast Asia is one of the most important economic regions in the world, with the combined GDP of six regional countries accounting for roughly 25 percent of the world’s total. It is also one of the major political centers and has significant influence on international affairs. The six regional countries — China, Russia, Japan, Mongolia, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea — have strong economic complementarity, laying a solid foundation for regional economic cooperation. 

However, compared with other more advanced instances of regional integration such as the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and North America, regional cooperation and development between the Northeast Asian countries has lagged far behind its potential, due mainly to political, security and historical tensions.

The current situation of regional cooperation in Northeast Asia can be summed up as follows:

First, there is yet to be an effective regional cooperation mechanism that covers all six countries. Russia announced in 2015 the decision to hold the Eastern Economic Forum each year in Vladivostok to promote regional economic development and international cooperation in its Far East. However, the event is an open forum and provides no institutional arrangements.

Second, the smaller-scale multilateral cooperation mechanisms do not work as well as expected. The Tumen River Area Development Programme was launched by the UN Development Programme in 1991, now rebranded as the Greater Tumen Initiative, and has served as an intergovernmental platform for economic cooperation and exchange in the area to further deepen the regional development and revitalization. However, due to security and political concerns including the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, the GTI has had difficulty in making further progress.

Another important mechanism is the China-Japan-ROK leaders’ meeting, which was first launched in 2008. The three countries originally agreed to hold the event each year in rotation. However, due to severe disruptions from historical issues and territorial disputes, the trilateral leaders’ meeting has only been held eight times since 2008, failing to substantially promote economic cooperation between the three.

Third, the highlight of Northeast Asia regional cooperation has been bilateral cooperation, with China-Japan, China-ROK, China-Russia, Russia-Japan, Russia-ROK and ROK-Japan bilateral economic and trade ties in full swing. China’s trade with Japan and the ROK combined now exceeds the volume of Sino-US trade. The ROK’s trade with China has exceeded its trade with the US and Japan combined. Buoyant bilateral economic and trade ties have provided a solid foundation for the alignment of cooperation strategies between regional countries.

The obstacles impeding regional cooperation in Northeast Asia are mainly political and security issues.

The DPRK has shrinking economic ties with the outside world in the wake of tough sanctions from the United Nations and unilateral sanctions from certain countries over the nuclear issue. Further, the developed countries’ sanctions against Russia have hampered Northeast Asian countries’ economic cooperation with Russia. Meanwhile, the intensifying Sino-US competition has dealt a heavy blow to the stability of regional industrial chains and supply chains and severely undermined regional cooperation and development.

Despite the numerous difficulties, Northeastern Asian countries should establish intergovernmental cooperation mechanisms that are results-oriented and driven by regional countries.

The Northeast Asian countries have a strong will to step up regional economic cooperation, while the key lies in whether they can build consensus on the alignment of cooperation strategies and create greater momentum for pressing ahead with regional cooperation. All parties should, based on dynamic bilateral cooperation, seek to eliminate interference, strengthen the momentum for building smaller-scale multilateral mechanisms such as the trilateral leaders’ meeting, and further advance the establishment of a regional cooperation mechanism that involves all six regional countries, so as to realize infrastructure connectivity and better personnel exchanges as well as regional peace and prosperity.

Over the past few years, Northeast Asian countries have put forward new ideas on boosting regional cooperation. The Belt and Road Initiative proposed by China continues to grow in popularity among Northeast Asian countries; the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor has made great progress; Mongolia’s Grasslands Silk Road is extending; and the ROK has been vigorously promoting economic cooperation with China, Russia, Mongolia and Central Asian countries through its New Northern Policy. Furthermore, Japan proposed the idea of an economic rim around the Sea of Japan many years ago and the DPRK has been mulling over deeper economic cooperation with other regional countries.

Northeast Asian countries should join hands to overcome the current difficulties and plan for future development by steadily advancing regional cooperation focusing on key areas such as biotechnology, where there is immediate potential to be tapped by fully bolstering cooperation on COVID-19 vaccine research and development and manufacturing; the digital economy, where Northeast Asian countries are already taking the global lead in integrating information and communications technology with the broader economy; and green development, as accelerating the low-carbon transition is an essential for a region that is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

The author is a researcher with the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.