Country Report: China (December 2020)

In the fall of 2020, Chinese analysts assessed US and Japanese policies in light of recent anti-globalization trends and made predictions about the United States’ near-term relations with its allies. They also examined the Japan–Russia bilateral relationship by considering the legacy of the Abe administration and the likely future under Suga. They continued to evaluate the implications of COVID-19 for regional relations, with particular attention to China–Japan–South Korea trilateral cooperation. With Suga newly installed and US policy anticipated to change markedly under Biden—and COVID-19 continuing to insert a large degree of unpredictability—there was an expectation that regional and global relations will be in flux.

Anti-globalization trends

Dongbeiya Xuekan, No. 6, 2020 hosted a roundtable on recent anti-globalization trends. Zhao Mei’s contribution explores why the United States has shifted from its traditional support for globalization to advocating for anti-globalization, the implications of this shift for the global political and economic order and US–China relations, and likely Chinese responses. Although the United States played the key role in establishing the post-Second World War international economic order and promoted bilateral and multilateral trade agreements in the 1980s, the rapid economic growth of China and other developing countries over the past three decades—which has spurred outsourcing of US industries, increased domestic economic inequality, and spurred a relative decline in national power—has caused some Americans to sour on globalization.

In Zhao’s view, the United States has turned against globalization for three main reasons. First, the outsourcing of US industries led to regional decline in the “Rust Belt” and a long-term decline in US manufacturing. Second, economic and social inequality have widened dramatically in the United States, leading to resentment among middle- and lower-income white Americans. Finally, the relative global decline of the United States makes some Americans feel that they are increasingly disadvantaged by global competition. Much of this, Zhao argues, stems from anxiety about China’s rise and the perception that China’s development model and increasing influence over the global order challenge US values and interests. These tendencies have been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. Concerns with supply chain security have led government officials to call for US self-sufficiency in PPE and medical equipment and provided an excuse to push further “decoupling” from China.

The Trump administration adopted a number of anti-globalization measures, consistent with its “America First” slogan. It withdrew (or threatened to withdraw) from a variety of organizations and agreements, such as the WHO, the TPP, and the Paris Climate Agreement. It also seriously undermined the WTO by preventing the selection of judges to its Appellate Body, rendering it unable to hear disputes. These measures have increased unpredictability and undermined the post-Second World War global economic order. The Trump administration also renegotiated trade agreements, such as NAFTA, to include more protectionist measures. The Trump administration further imposed tariffs on products such as steel and aluminum to protect domestic producers and imposed immigration restrictions to make it harder for US businesses to employ foreign workers.

Zhao contends that the Trump administration devoted particular attention to “decoupling” from China, given its perception of China as a major strategic competitor. This effort took many forms. For example, the United States sought to prevent the use of Chinese products in communications infrastructure (as with the construction of 5G networks) and opposed mergers and acquisitions involving Chinese companies. Legislation progressing through Congress will require foreign companies to make their audit records available or risk delisting from US exchanges. (Zhao views this bill as aimed primarily at China.) The Trump administration also took steps to prevent Chinese companies from collecting and storing personal data of Americans. This decoupling extended to academic exchanges; the United States revoked Chinese student visas because of alleged ties to the Chinese military, investigated Chinese researchers and researchers of Chinese descent working in the United States, and imposed restrictions on Confucius Institutes.

In Zhao’s view, US struggles since the 2008 global financial crisis derive from domestic causes, but the United States has instead blamed “imaginary enemies” such as globalization and China. This misattribution of blame will continue so long as the United States faces large-scale economic and social inequality and the coronavirus pandemic. In this context, Zhao proposes that China adopt a three-part approach: First, China should remain steadfast in its strategic approach and recognize that “structural contradictions” between China and the United States will persist for the long-term. Second, China should use its success in containing the domestic coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to promote globalization and take a bigger role in global public health governance. (The unspoken contrast here is to the United States, which has failed to contain infections and, under the Trump administration, left the WHO, demonstrating that it lacked both the credibility and any interest in maintaining its traditional leading role in global public health governance.) Finally, Zhao urges China to maintain cooperative, stable relations with the United States despite the recent increase in US support for “decoupling” and “China threat theory.” Although these developments are alarming to Chinese observers like Zhao, Zhao argues that the past forty years of US–China relations provide strong societal foundations for continued productive relations. (While Zhao focuses here on the anti-China tenor of many of the Trump administration’s policies, Zhao does not—and most likely cannot—consider the impact of Xi’s more assertive foreign policy and restrictive domestic policy on US public opinion toward China.) Despite the current setbacks, Zhao predicts that globalization will continue to deepen and progress.

Also writing in Dongbeiya Xuekan, No. 6, 2020, Sun Lingling and Gao Hong assess Japan’s response to anti-globalization trends. Japan has long been a strong proponent of regionalism, and of globalization more generally, and benefits from the international division of labor, especially with regards to technology. Japan has also embraced globalization on a cultural level, welcoming a diversity of international influences. Nevertheless, Japan recognizes that globalization has several potential disadvantages: First, global competition has reduced wages and increased unemployment in some industries. Second, increasing income gaps have threatened the uniformity of the middle class and created class differences. Third, Sun and Gao posit that Japanese believe more extensive cross-border migrations can lead to cultural clashes, which increase the risk of terrorism.

Sun and Gao contend that the Japanese government believes that globalization and anti-globalization trends will continue to co-exist: while globalization characterizes the digital economy and high-tech fields, anti-globalization tendencies are rampant in Western countries, particularly the United States. They foresee a future world order in which China and the United States both play leading roles and compete with each other for influence. They see US protectionism as a response to increased Chinese exports and the deterioration of middle-class wages and employment. These protectionist tendencies have been further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which demonstrated US vulnerability to interruptions in the global supply chain. In the Japanese government’s view, much of the current anti-globalization trend arises from US–China tension. Japanese response has come in three main parts: first, the Japanese government has tried to alter laws to make it easier for foreign citizens to enter and stay in Japan and has tried to attract more foreign investment. Second, Japan has demonstrated its support for globalization through its active involvement in the G7, G20, and OECD; this involvement also allows it to influence global economic governance in directions that are consistent with Japanese development priorities. Finally, the government has attempted to develop a culture of academic and industrial innovation and exchange.

Sun and Gao argue that the underlying objective of US anti-globalization policy is to return to an international economic order centered around the United States and to contain perceived threats from China’s rise. In this context, they view Japan’s willingness to cooperate with the United States (albeit under US pressure) as a sign of its willingness to also contain China and contend that this cooperation has increased China–Japan tensions. At the same time, they assert that Japan has developed a stronger economic security policy based on its assessment of its own needs; this has also led to increased competition between Japan and China. Furthermore, Japan is undergoing a similar “decoupling” process as the United States and attempting to reduce the dependence of its supply chains in key industries on China. However, there are questions about whether such self-sufficiency can actually be achieved; moreover, Japan’s susceptibility to natural disasters makes an effort to bring crucial production back home risky. Consequently, Japan has sought to “internationalize and diversify” its international production and supply chains, by working with India, ASEAN, Australia, and New Zealand; promoting cooperation under the recently signed RCEP agreement; and cooperating with other developed countries to identify high-tech solutions.

Japan’s underlying objective, in Sun and Gao’s view, is to maintain influence over the construction of a regional economic order. It seeks to maintain the liberal international order, while also trying to hedge by bringing China into this order. Japan will continue to promote free trade, while also trying to write the new rules for global supply chains and the digital economy. Japan’s participation in a variety of free trade agreements, such as the CPTPP, the Japan–Europe EPA, and the Japan–US Trade Agreement indicate its desire to serve as a hub. Japan wants to improve Japan–US trade relations to consolidate the bilateral relationship and tie in the United States to free trade mechanisms in the Asia–Pacific.

Sun and Gao believe that Japan hopes to establish a regional cooperation framework that will advance Japanese interests while containing China. At the 2019 G20 summit, Japan proposed that the US–Japan Digital Trade Agreement serve as the basis for bilateral agreements with Australia, India, and Europe, and that those bilateral agreements, in turn, serve as the basis for new multilateral digital trade agreements. Furthermore, China’s BRI and new global infrastructure strategy have inspired Japan to pursue its own infrastructure export strategy and 5G law as it attempts to compete with China to construct the digital infrastructure in the Indo–Pacific region and balance Chinese soft power. Japan is wary of China’s increasing influence in international organizations and worries that China is substituting its own standards for international standards, and then using diplomatic and economic measures to gain the support of countries within the Indo–Pacific region (where much of the BRI is focused). Finally, Japan seeks leadership roles in a host of international economic working groups, which would allow it to influence the creation of regional rules and counter Chinese attempts to do the same.

In this context, Sun and Gao believe a domestic consensus has formed around three aspects of Japan’s approach to great power politics and its relations with China. First, Japanese observers expect that China–US competition will continue in the long-run, regardless of changes in leadership in the United States. Second, Japanese observers expect this competition to intensify and impact the rest of the world. Finally, they believe that the United States needs Japan and will not abandon it. These assumptions inform Japanese policy: recognizing China’s firm position in the East China Sea, Japan perceives its best bet to be closer military and security integration with the United States. With regards to economic issues, Japan feels it can take a firm position toward China, particularly in the high-tech industry and with respect to the formulation of rules and standards. These positions are supported by the domestic political climate.

Given this Japanese response to anti-globalization, Sun and Gao contend that China should adopt a three-pronged approach. First, China should focus on maintaining high-level strategic communications to stabilize relations with Japan, while preventing crises that might arise from structural tensions between the two countries. Even if it is difficult to shift the overall trend in the bilateral relationship, they contend that it should not be impossible for China to adopt a Japan policy that is consistent with overall Chinese foreign policy objectives, manages sensitive issues properly, and counters, to some extent, Japan’s increasing coordination with the United States. The new Suga administration presents an opportunity for China to emphasize these objectives. Second, China needs to manage sensitive issues to avoid the outbreak of crises, specifically with regard to maritime issues and the East China Sea. These measures are particularly important given that Sun and Gao see quadrilateral Japan–US–Australia–India cooperation as a US-led “Little Asian NATO” directed against China. Third, China must use the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to promote globalization. In the face of worldwide anti-globalization trends, China and Japan can work together to promote a UN-centered international order, multilateralism, and regional cooperation, especially with regard to trade and economic cooperation and supply chain policies. Despite the pressures imposed on Japan by the US–Japan relationship, Japan’s strategic autonomy is increasing, allowing it to insert itself as a “key balancer” in the China–US relationship. Nevertheless, Sun and Gao argue that China must persuade the new Suga administration to recognize the importance of seeking a mutually beneficial bilateral relationship.

US alliance relations

In Guoji Zhengzhi Kexue, No. 4, 2020, Fang Yuanyuan and Huang Bei assess the state of relations between the United States and its allies and evaluate the implications for Chinese interests. Although Fang and Huang argue that the United States sees its allies as the core of its China strategy, particularly in the COVID-19 era, they contend that there are important differences in these countries’ China policies. During the first half of 2020, China’s relations with Australia and the United Kingdom deteriorated significantly. These countries, Fang and Huang argue, share with the United States close intelligence relations, a common Anglo–Saxon cultural background, and a disdain for China’s ideological and political structures. Their initial tensions with China over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic gave way later in the year to ideological disagreements over the future of Hong Kong. In contrast, China’s relations with Japan and France fluctuated during the first half of 2020. These countries disagree with various aspects of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, but also are concerned about China’s rise. Areas that give rise to tensions with China include the pandemic, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and territorial disputes. Relations with South Korea have been smooth, continuing a recent trend of close economic and political relations; South Korea refrained from blaming China for the emergence of the pandemic. This image of Sino–ROK relations is much improved over 2019, suggesting a national strategy to capitalize on perceived widening divisions between Seoul and Washington.

Although US elections since 2000 have not previously resulted in major shifts in these countries’ bilateral relations with China, Fang and Huang contend, the unorthodox nature of Trump’s China policy and the substantial differences between the foreign policy views of the Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration suggest that the policies of US allies are likely to undergo more change than usual. Although Biden, like Trump, has adopted a “tough on China” approach, his more pragmatic nature and his interest in international cooperation on shared challenges like public health and climate change will create much more space for China–US cooperation. The authors do not expect this predicted shift in US foreign policy to have a great impact on Australia and UK relations with China. Both of these countries are trying to assert their international influence as medium-sized powers as the United States declines and China rises. Australia’s recent national defense strategy documents and its response to the South China Sea disputes and the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate, in Fang and Huang’s view, that Australia is committed to a more offensive security approach.

By contrast, Fang and Huang argue that South Korea values China as an important partner. They expect that South Korea will continue to hedge by pursuing close economic ties with China and close security ties with the United States. Although worsening China–US tensions may push South Korea to “choose sides” and move closer to the United States, Fang and Huang do not anticipate China–South Korea relations will worsen significantly in 2021 because of Moon’s commitment to a more autonomous foreign policy and because of the lack of significant bilateral territorial or ideological disputes. Underlying their argument is a belief that, of all states, South Korea is on the front lines in the deepening struggle between Beijing and Washington and is likely to withstand new US pressure.

China’s relations with France and Japan are likely to be most impacted by the US election. While Fang and Huang believe that a second Trump administration would have resulted in more substantial deterioration of China–Japan relations, they anticipate that the Biden administration will bring more opportunities for China–US cooperation, even as strategic competition continues, which will provide Japan with more flexibility in its China policy. Consequently, they anticipate that China–Japan relations will continue to fluctuate, but will not decline precipitously. At the same time, Fang and Huang predict that China–France relations will worsen under the Biden administration. Much of the recent closeness between China and France under Macron has been predicated on French opposition to Trump’s foreign policy; with Biden’s election, they predict that US–France relations will improve and the two countries will coordinate to counter Chinese influence. Fang and Huang conclude that the Biden administration will bring increased strategic competition with China through mechanisms including traditional alliance relations, security partnerships, and multilateralism. They expect the United States to coordinate much more with its allies on specific issues in their respective China policies. Consequently, unlike in the past, they expect Biden’s election to bring a significant shift in US allies’ policies toward China. Yet, somehow, they believe that a Biden administration means Japan can be dissuaded from tilting very far to the US side in the struggle.

Japan–Russia relations

In Guoji Wenti Yanjiu, No. 6, 2020, Wang Haibin evaluates the trajectory of Japan–Russia relations over the course of Abe’s leadership and offers predictions for the future of the relationship under the Suga administration. After Abe returned to power in 2012, he devoted significant energy to improving relations with Russia through high-level exchanges and close diplomatic work with Putin. This effort resulted in a significant improvement in the bilateral relationship, although important challenges remain. The two countries have maintained frequent interactions as they work together to create a “strategic partnership” and increase cooperation across a range of issues. Japan also demonstrated a willingness to work on economic cooperation and territorial disputes in parallel, rather than insisting that territorial issues must be resolved before other aspects of the relationship could develop. The two countries strengthened their bilateral strategic relations through the implementation of 2+2 talks in 2013 and a host of exchanges between their military forces. Japan and Russia also encouraged cultural exchanges to promote feelings of amity in both countries. In 2018, the two countries made some progress toward settling their territorial disputes and negotiating a peace treaty. This upbeat assessment is at odds with what Japanese are now saying, but it is qualified in further comments.

Despite these positive developments, Wang cautions that substantial challenges remain. Notwithstanding the positive developments of the 2010s, there have been no large breakthroughs in political and economic relations or on the territorial and peace treaty issues, and the fundamental nature of the bilateral relationship remains unchanged. Despite Abe and Putin’s 2013 declaration that they would work toward achieving a strategic partnership, for example, no agreement has yet been reached. Likewise, economic cooperation efforts remain largely a matter of words, rather than actions. Despite the 2018 “preliminary consensus” on the territorial dispute and peace treaty issues, the two sides have been unable to agree on the underlying framework for further negotiations, much less the specific details.

Wang contends that Japan–Russia relations during the Abe period combined the legacies of historical bilateral relations with contemporary elements. One key characteristic was mutual mistrust, resulting from both sides’ historic expansionist tendencies in Northeast Asia. The Cold War compounded this distrust and set up a pattern of Japan allying with the West against the Soviet Union, and now Russia, that continues to the present. According to a 2018 Japanese survey, 78.8% of respondents viewed Russia as unfriendly; this theme has echoed widely in the Japanese media. Russian observers similarly view Japan with great suspicion, giving substantial weight to its alliance with the United States and participation in the sanctions regime directed against Russia. According to a 2019 Russian poll, only 6% of respondents see Japan as a close friend. Such evidence reinforces persistent Chinese pessimism about this relationship.

A second key characteristic of bilateral relations during the Abe era was their volatility and fragility. Although Abe began his administration with the intent to improve relations, the Ukrainian crisis hampered these efforts. According to Wang, the United States and other Western countries compelled Japan to join their sanctions regime, although Japan tried to limit its substantive implementation of these measures. Nevertheless, Russia was displeased and bilateral relations remained difficult until Putin’s 2016 visit to Japan indicated an improvement. The volatility of the bilateral relationship results, to a significant degree, from the lack of mutual trust, which hampers the two countries’ ability to manage difficult issues. US policy also has a substantial negative impact on Japanese–Russian relations; Japan’s desire to placate the United States means that its Russia policy is often subordinated to US interests.

A final characteristic of Japanese–Russian relations during the Abe administration was the marked enthusiasm gap between the two countries. While Japan was eager to improve relations, Russia placed less strategic importance on the bilateral relationship. One of Japan’s major priorities is to resolve the territorial dispute, but since it does not control the territory it must rely on Russia’s willingness to negotiate to make progress. From Russia’s perspective, however, the territorial dispute is far less pressing because Russia controls the territory. Furthermore, Wang contends, Japan feels isolated in Northeast Asia; its relations with North Korea, China, and South Korea are all strained because of historical and territorial disputes. Consequently, Japan has ample reason to seek a stronger relationship with Russia. However, Russia does not feel the same sense of isolation in Northeast Asia. As a result, Russia does not view its relationship with Japan as very important for its strategic interests. The two countries’ divergent views of China also contribute to the enthusiasm gap. Japan actively participated in the Obama administration’s Asia–Pacific rebalance and the Trump administration’s Indo–Pacific strategy in an effort to contain China. The Abe administration viewed stronger relations with Russia as a way to impose a wedge between Russia and China, which would help it to contain China. However, Wang argues, Russia has resisted these Japanese efforts and views a continued friendly relationship with China as in its strategic interests.

Looking ahead to the prospects for bilateral relations under the Suga administration, Wang argues that relations will not significantly improve, and may even falter, but will also not “derail.” Although Suga began his term with a friendly call with Putin, continued tensions over territorial issues underlay their talk of “progress” and “stability,” as the two countries’ respective posturing in the fall of 2020 indicated. Wang is pessimistic that Suga will be able to improve the bilateral relations. Wang asserts that Abe’s ability to advocate for stronger bilateral relations with Russia resulted from his domestic political power; with Suga facing the COVID-19 pandemic and a faltering economy, Wang does not anticipate that Suga will enjoy the same support. Furthermore, Wang views Abe as uniquely talented at diplomacy; if he was unable to achieve a breakthrough with Russia, there is not much hope for any other leader. Compounding these difficulties, the stagnation in negotiations since the 2018 preliminary consensus has been accompanied by a re-hardening of positions on the territory and peace treaty issues. In Russia, there is strong opposition to transferring land to Japan; Japan, by contrast, claims full sovereignty over the disputed islands. These challenges are increased by the US deployment of anti-missile systems in Japan, its potential further deployment of short- and medium-range missiles, and the strong military cooperation between the two countries, all of which raise alarm in Russia.

Although relations may deteriorate, Wang argues that they will not completely “derail.” Both Japan and Russia have a strategic geopolitical interest in maintaining stable bilateral relations. Faced with containment by the West, Russia has no desire to create another threat to its East; Japan, on the other hand, wants to avoid regional isolation. Likewise, both countries want to improve bilateral relations. For Russia, a stronger relationship with Japan supports it efforts to develop balanced diplomacy with a variety of partners in the Asia–Pacific, increase its position as a Eurasian power, and counteract Japanese collaboration with the US Indo–Pacific strategy. For Japan, a stronger relationship with Russia can serve as a hedge against China, allow it to diversify beyond the United States at a time when the United States’ weakening position may call its alliance commitments into question, create a more positive atmosphere for potential future re-militarization, and, given Russia’s position on the UN Security Council, potentially help Japan’s bid for a permanent seat. A close bilateral relationship is also in both countries’ economic interests, with Russia both an important market and a source of energy and Japan a major source of technology. Finally, the two countries will continue dialogue and cooperation on both the territorial issue and sanctions. Wang contends that Japan recognizes that sanctions will not shift Russian claims of sovereignty and will therefore seek more friendly relations that could allow for negotiations; Russia sees positive relations with Japan as a way to undermine the Western sanctions regime, both by persuading Japan to relax its own sanctions and by using economic cooperation to blunt the impact of sanctions imposed by other countries. Wang concludes that bilateral relations will most likely continue in this “tepid” state for the foreseeable future.

China–Japan–South Korea relations

In Dangdai Hanguo, No. 2, 2020, Yan Zeyang argues that China–Japan–South Korea trilateral relations show promising signs of cooperation in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yan first offers an overview of formal trilateral cooperation since the Asian financial crisis ended in 1998. During the initial period of cooperation, from 1999–2007, trilateral cooperation occurred within the context of the 10+3 (ASEAN + China, Japan, and South Korea) framework. The trilateral relationship then consolidated and further developed in the aftermath of the global financial crisis (2008–2014). The three countries began to meet outside the 10+3 framework; in 2011, they established the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, based in Seoul. The three countries also began working toward a trilateral FTA, although difficulties in China–Japan and Japan–South Korean relations have hampered negotiations. Since 2015, during what Yan terms the “recovery and upgrading period,” the three countries have focused on creating an East Asian community and strengthened their economic ties.

In Yan’s view, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the importance of trilateral cooperation, which is in each country’s national interest. There are enormous economic gains to be realized from cooperation between three of the world’s largest economies; the elimination of trade barriers will promote this growth. The three countries’ geographic proximity and shared historical and cultural traditions also offer a basis for friendly exchanges (notwithstanding the tensions posed by more recent history). Yan argues that the pandemic offers opportunities to further strengthen trilateral cooperation. For example, Yan predicts that East Asia will be among the first regions to recover from the pandemic; by strengthening the integration of the supply and production chains linking China, Japan, and South Korea, the three countries will be well-poised for an economic recovery. Furthermore, Yan contends that the pandemic has strengthened the cultural solidarity shared by the three countries. After the outbreak first emerged in Wuhan, Japan’s LDP sent donations to China and South Korea expressed its support; once the virus spread to Japan and South Korea, China sent test kids and medical supplies. The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of coordination on public health policies to prevent spread within the region.

Notwithstanding these positive tendencies, Yan argues that the three countries face a number of obstacles to deeper cooperation. First, each of the countries has its own strategic incentives, which may not always coincide. As the first of the countries to develop in the contemporary era, Japan has sought to establish a regional cooperation structure centered on itself, but sees trilateral cooperation as a useful backup. South Korea is particularly interested in regional trade initiatives and economic cooperation, given its export-oriented economy and its reliance on regional supply chains, but lacks the power to achieve this on its own. China values the construction of an East Asian community, but as it has developed into a global power, it has become less dependent on regional relations. A second obstacle arises from perennial historical and territorial disputes, which will persist into the foreseeable future. A third major factor is the three countries’ relations with external powers. The most problematic of these is the United States, whose military alliances with Japan and South Korea are a constant thorn in China’s side. The United States also has an incentive to prevent trilateral relations from becoming too close. The three countries must also manage their relations with ASEAN, which plays a major role in regional economic cooperation. Fourth, regional supply chains, which have thus far been largely complementary, may become more competitive, especially as China’s rapid development drives a shift away from its traditional labor- and resource-intensive production. Finally, there is a deficit of mutual trust between the three countries, and South Korea and Japan remain dependent on the United States for their security, alarming China.

In light of these challenges, Yan advocates a multi-pronged approach to strengthen trilateral cooperation. The pandemic offers an opportunity to build a regional crisis response mechanism and cooperate on a major non-traditional security issue. The three countries should also work to conclude their FTA, which will allow for smoother trade and deeper regional economic integration, along the lines of the EU or the US–Mexico–Canada trade agreement. In addition, the three countries should increase their cooperation in emerging industries and technologies, including 5G, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and blockchain, which would allow the region to drive the global economy. The three countries should also advocate for a “China, Japan, South Korea + X” multilateral framework. Finally, the three countries should strengthen their mutual trust and align their strategic interests, while also seeking to resolve impediments to peace in Northeast Asia, most notably the North Korean nuclear crisis. Yan concludes that, despite fluctuations over the past two decades, the pandemic presents an opportunity for China, Japan, and South Korea to commit to a shared, cooperative future. This article was written before the conclusion of RCEP, which brought the three together in a broad trade agreement, and before the Japanese side balked at holding a CJK summit in Seoul before the end of the year, demonstrating again the tenuous record of summitry due to bilateral rifts that repeatedly interfere with the trilateral relationship.