Northeast Asia’s Shared Destiny

DENVER – When the foreign ministers of China, South Korea, and Japan convened in Seoul last week to discuss potential cooperation on a range of issues, from counterterrorism to air pollution, it was the first time they had met in nearly three years. But, beyond agreeing to hold a trilateral summit at the “earliest convenient time,” the key question that all three face remains unresolved: Will they manage to settle – or at least set aside – their territorial and historical disputes in order to advance their common interests?

China certainly hopes so, at least with regard to its Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, a thinly veiled effort to promote and stimulate China’s construction industry. But, on this front, Japan and South Korea were reticent, politely agreeing to study China’s invitation to join the AIIB. Both countries recognize the implications of participating in an initiative that undermines the Asian Development Bank and even the World Bank, though South Korea has now announced its intention to join.

The AIIB is envisioned as a kind of throwback development bank, one that launches infrastructure projects with little red tape and no consideration of social or environmental factors. But, if the AIIB is to achieve its ambitious goals, which include a modern recreation of the ancient Silk Road trade route to Europe, China will have to overcome more than its neighbors’ reluctance; it will also have to contend with its citizens’ growing impatience with grandiose visions.

For the Chinese public, massive collective endeavors are simply not as important as, say, sidewalks and buses that enable their children to get to school safely. As China’s urban sprawl increasingly turns what once had been short, simple trips into long, dangerous odysseys, managing such demands is requiring a growing proportion of the government’s attention.