The leaders of Japan, China and South Korea pledged Sunday to speed up laying the ground work for a possible three-way free trade pact, in a step to revitalize discussions in light of the economic damage from the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11. “We decided to complete joint studies among industry representatives, officials and academics on a Japan-China-South Korea free-trade agreement this year, and to follow up by accelerating other joint studies after that,” Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said in a joint statement after a summit in Tokyo. While the path to any actual agreement on a trade pact remains fraught with difficulties, the agreement among the leaders reflects a renewed willingness to mull closer economic ties despite recent diplomatic spats.
China temporarily curbed exports to Japan of rare-earths—a key material in many high-tech products—late in 2010 following a flare-up in the countries’ longstanding territorial dispute over the islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. The leaders said they are now pushing to step up talks toward a trade agreement given a shared desire to “strengthen cooperation to boost the region’s vibrancy and dynamism and lead Asia’s strong growth.” China, Japan and South Korea account for around 20% of the world’s total economic output, a fact major business and trade lobbies from the countries cited in asking the leaders to conclude a free-trade agreement as soon as possible.
The business communities in each country will work together to promote “industrial and regional recovery in Japan” following the devastating 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami, the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), China Council for the Promotion of International Trade and the Federation of Korean Industries said in a joint statement issued to the countries’ leaders at a business summit in Tokyo on Sunday afternoon. “We reaffirm the importance of Northeast Asian supply chains to the global economy and collaborate to restore and maintain their smooth functioning,” the statement added. Speaking at a joint press conference after the summit Sunday morning, South Korea’s president alluded to the challenges of pursuing closer economic ties despite long-standing historical issues and despite the countries often vying as economic and political rivals.