China Bounds Onto the Stage of Regional Cooperation


By January 2002, more than 200 bilateral or multilateral regional trade agreements (RTA) had been reported to the GATT/WTO worldwide, of which 160 have come into effect; 128 of these were concluded since 1990 and 24 since 2000 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs). It may be a sign that the tide of regionalism has gained momentum amid the globalization of the world economy.

It is striking that, of the top 30 countries in the world GDP ranking, the only ones that have no connections whatsoever to the abovementioned regional cooperation agreements are ironically the three major economies of Northeast Asia: Japan, China and the ROK. Japan is negative about local cooperation without the presence of the U.S., because it has persisted in an economic policy of dependence on the U.S. (however, Japan concluded the Japan-Singapore Economic Agreement for a New Age Partnership with Singapore in January 2002), while the ROK has given priority to Northeast Asian regional cooperation centering around the Korean Peninsula by developing its “Northern Policy”, but a regional agreement has yet to be concluded. On the other hand, China implemented its “opening up in all directions” policy and has strengthened its policy for responding to globalization. There is no doubt that Northeast Asia has missed the boat.

However, a few positive signs have been seen as the stances of the three countries on regional cooperation have changed; the Asian currency and financial crisis was the turning point for this. Moves in this direction began when the three countries attended the ASEAN summit meeting in Kuala Lumpur in December 1997 and in 1999, the leaders of the three countries met for the first time in history at a luncheon during a summit meeting in Manila. Since then, the trilateral meetings of the leaders of Japan, China and the ROK have been held regularly, and these have expanded swiftly to encompass various ministerial level policy dialogues, including talks between ministers of the economy and finance, environment ministers, foreign ministers, commissioners of patents and directors of port authorities, in line with proposals made at the summit meetings. It is also remarkable that the three countries have rapidly become on better terms as a flood of joint research and seminars undertaken by research institutes and forums at the private sector level have taken place. This is a clear indication that the three countries are trying to keep up with the tide of regional cooperation.

Among these countries, the attitude of the Chinese government towards regional cooperation and policy change in recent years is particularly noteworthy. Firstly, China responded positively to the ASEAN+3 (Japan, China and the ROK) summit meeting and the trilateral meetings of the leaders of Japan, China and the ROK, as well as actively promoting the Bilateral Swap Agreement. At the same time, following the successful APEC meeting in October 2001 at Shanghai, President Jiang Zemin took an active role at the Thirty-Fifth Annual Meeting of the Asian Development Bank held in Shanghai in May 2002 and demonstrated China’s positive stance on activities within a framework for multilateral regional cooperation. These two conferences were the perfect opportunity for China to boost its confidence as well as being a chance to call attention to the Chinese role in regional cooperation. The foregoing are approaches to the existing framework for international cooperation.

At the same time, China is also making positive efforts to establish a new cooperative framework with neighboring countries. China demonstrated initiative with the establishment in 2001 of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, consisting of China, Russia and Central Asian republics. President Jiang Zemin attended the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) on 4 June 2002, held in Almaty, Kazakhstan, underscoring his country’s stance on regional cooperation and its presence in the region. The greatest focus of attention was the First Annual Conference of the Boao Forum for Asia, which was held from 12-13 April 2002 in Boao, Hainan Island, China. Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan attended the conference and expressed Japanese position on regional cooperation in Asia in his speech. The Chinese Premier, Zhu Rongji, clarified four commitments on regional cooperation: 1) making economic cooperation the focus and expanding this to cooperation covering all other areas; 2) promoting sub-regional cooperation first and then making progress with cooperation in Asia as a whole; 3) ensuring that bilateral cooperation and multilateral cooperation are complementary, 4) implementing open regional cooperation.

It is expected that China, which, like Japan, has had an ambiguous attitude towards regional cooperation, will steadily pick up the tempo of regional cooperation in the future as it consolidates its policy as mentioned above. Although Chinese authorities have demonstrated a negative attitude towards taking the lead in regional cooperation, as mentioned earlier, I think that the country’s inclination to run with the ball is increasing.

[Translated by ERINA]