The Dawning of Cooperation on Northeast Asian Economic Development?

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† On Hyakka Somei [“Let a hundred schools of thought contend”], the policy bulletin board of The Council on East Asian Community (CEAC) website on 20 February 2007

The six-party talks have finally managed to come to an overall agreement. In exchange for one million tonnes of heavy fuel oil in assistance the DPRK is to denuclearize. If the denuclearization is implemented in good faith, a thaw will commence in Northeast Asia, which to date has been on ice. Not without good reason Japan is still on a high state of alert. This is because the issue of the abductees still remains in Japan–DPRK bilateral talks, and a resolution is not in sight. There are many people who think that if Japan doesn’t apply pressure in the form of economic sanctions, the DPRK won’t yield on the resolution of the issue of the abductees. The four countries of China, the ROK, Russia and the United States, who have agreed this time, don’t think that way, however. The Bush administration of the United States, which had been in synch with Japan to date, has also changed tack.

What is called Northeast Asia here takes as its main target the six countries or regions of: the three northeastern provinces of China, Japan, the ROK, the DPRK, Mongolia, and the Russian Far East. Regarding these countries and regions, the presence of natural and human resources differs greatly, they have a mutual complementarity, and the great benefit of an international division of labor is possible. Due to the fact that their political and economic systems are different, however, they can’t tackle cooperation on development, and the international division of labor has been greatly constrained. In recent years they have been actively moving on the concept of an East Asian Community, yet Northeast Asia, while being included within East Asia, is being left behind and economic development is also delayed.

Prime Minister Abe has designated Japan an Asian gateway, but it somehow appears to mean East and Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the cities on the Sea of Japan coast have had aspirations vis-à-vis Northeast Asia on the opposite shores of the Sea of Japan. Continuing on from the activity of the kitamaebune,* at the beginning of the twentieth century it was a productive sea where there was a brisk trade in fertilizer made from sardines and the strained lees of soybean oil. Therein, for already more than 15 years the Economic Research Institute for Northeast Asia (ERINA) of Niigata Prefecture has organized the Northeast Asia International Economic Conference, obtained the participation, with the exception of the DPRK, of five countries and regions, and deliberated on Northeast Asian economic cooperation. The feeling I got when I participated in the Northeast Asia International Conference for Economic Development, held in Niigata City at the beginning of February—although immediately before the agreement at the six-party talks—was indisputably “Is this the dawning of cooperation on Northeast Asian economic development?”

When in Japan I think that Northeast Asia is on ice. Looking at the big picture, however, over the past few years moves to ease tensions in the political and security spheres—such as the resolution of the eastern section of the Sino–Russian border dispute, the North–South summits on the Korean Peninsula, the attempts at the normalization of Japan–Russia diplomatic relations, negotiations for a Japan–ROK Free Trade Agreement, and the Japan–DPRK Pyongyang Declaration—have been seen, and meanwhile with the dynamic development of the three northeastern provinces of China, positioned at the core of the region, exerting its pull, economic activation, involving the ROK, Japan and Russia, has become visible. Each country is coming up with aspirations for Northeast Asian development, including the Northeast China Revitalization Plan, the ROK’s Northeast Asia business hub vision, and the special committee for the development of the Russian Far East which President Putin set up just last month.

Respective bilateral border trade agreements have been made among China, Russia, the DPRK, and the ROK, border trade is growing brisk, and they have set up China–Russia, China–DPRK, and ROK–DPRK special processing zones, and accepted direct investment. Having created these bilateral cooperative links it is now necessary for a region-wide common trade and investment system to be built. Concrete visions for cooperation in key areas, such as transportation, energy, the environment, tourism, and the development of the Tumen River are being discussed.

Is this a cue for Japan’s central government? I hope that the present agreement will turn out to be a true dawn.

  1. Translator’s note: “Northern-bound ships” in the Edo and Meiji periods, running from Osaka via the Kanmon Straits and following the Sea of Japan coast as far as Hokkaido.

[Translated by ERINA]