Nowhere else in Asia has the region’s ongoing tectonic realignment been more evident than in the China-Japan-South Korea triangle. The People’s Republic of China is emerging as a new center of geopolitical gravity within the region; South Korea is rising as an influential middle power; and Japan is experiencing relative decline. The three sets of bilateral relationships, the undisputed pillars of prosperity and stability in the region, are branching in different directions. Within this triangle, China’s strategic approach to both Japan and South Korea is driven by intrinsic factors, the most significant of which are historical grievances, economic interdependence and geostrategic dynamics.
A Low Point in China-Japan Relations
Of the bilateral relationships in this East Asian triangle, China-Japan relations are the most complex. It is unsurprising that Japan occupies a prominent position in China’s strategic calculus regarding its immediate neighborhood. A long shared history, increasing economic integration and rising geopolitical competition have strongly intertwined the past and future of Northeast Asia’s two behemoths. Leaders on both sides have come to accept the complex and often contradictory nature of the relationship—choosing, for the most part, to adopt a pragmatic approach with the relationship often described as “cold politics, hot economics.” However, as recent tensions have flared over historical grievances and contested territories in the East China Sea, politics have become frosty, and the once “hot” economic relations between the two have chilled.