Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS) of China, Japan and the ROK

A new impetus for regional cooperation arose at the third Korea-Japan-China trilateral summit held on May 30, 2010 on Jeju Island. Upon agreement among the three heads of government, the ROK, Japan, and the People’s Republic of China launched a Secretariat to strengthen and institutionalize trilateral cooperation, and in September 2011, the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS) was officially inaugurated in Seoul as an inter-governmental organization. Establishing the TCS was unprecedented, as the relationship between the three countries has been characterized more by longstanding competition and tension than by cooperation and amity. This report explains the process behind its establishment, and introduces the functions and activities of this new and still not well-understood organization.

Establishment of the TCS

Trilateral cooperation has come a long way after the historic breakfast summit meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN+3 in 1999. From 2008, the three countries began to hold annual, independent trilateral summits. Increasing trilateral economic cooperation and frequent people-to-people exchanges led them to keenly feel the necessity of institutionalizing cooperation. Politically, conditions conducive to strengthening trilateral regional cooperation were taking shape. Leaders of the ROK and Japan recognized the importance of Asia-focused diplomacy. President Roh Moo-hyun announced a vision to serve as the “balancer in Northeast Asia.” The Fukuda cabinet and, not long thereafter, the Hatoyama administration, which advocated an Asia-conscious foreign policy and an East Asian community, respectively, endeavored to keep a balance between the United States and China on foreign policy, e.g., Hatoyama proposed to break away from “blind dependence” on the United States and to improve Japan’s relationship with China. China had gained confidence in conducting multilateral diplomacy and started to actively participate in regional cooperation mechanisms. It had high expectations for the rapidly increasing trilateral cooperation, perhaps deeming it a strategic advantage to keep the ROK and Japan, strong US allies, under this umbrella. Traditionally, the United States had been negative on an “Asian only” regional cooperation system, but, in this case, trilateral cooperation based on deepening economic cooperation had become an irreversible trend, and no negative US involvement was visible in this process.

The ROK took the initiative in establishing the TCS, eager to play an increased role in establishing peace and prosperity in the region. At a trilateral summit in Singapore in November 2007, Roh suggested the creation of the Trilateral Cooperation Cyber Secretariat (TCCS) and won approval. It was opened in time for the Beijing trilateral summit in October 2009. The ROK’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs took charge, and each country designated staff from its foreign ministry. Following this, the ROK called for establishing a permanent secretariat. Each of the three countries was eager to produce meaningful results from trilateral cooperation under its chairmanship. At the Fukuoka trilateral summit in December 2008, the “Joint Statement for Tripartite Partnership” was issued. At the Beijing summit, a “Joint Statement on the Tenth Anniversary of Trilateral Cooperation among the People’s Republic of China, Japan and the Republic of Korea” and a “Joint Statement on Sustainable Development among the People’s Republic of China, Japan and the Republic of Korea” were announced. Scheduled to host the summit in 2010, the Lee Myung-bak government wanted Korea to play a meaningful role in the international community, leading to efforts to bring the G-20 Summit and the Nuclear Security Summit to Korea, and Lee proposed the establishment of the TCS at the trilateral summit in Beijing in October 2009.

It was a surprising proposal as it had not been discussed at working-level consultations among the three countries. Hatoyama, keen on realizing his East Asia community vision, expressed his support, and Premier Wen Jiabao also offered his understanding. The ROK launched working-level consultations among the three countries. Japan was cautious at this level, but Hatoyama strongly backed the proposal for establishing the permanent secretariat. Once the consultations were launched, China was also actively involved. After finalizing the consultations, the three signed the “Memorandum for the Establishment of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat” in May 2010. Geopolitical and historical factors were considered in choosing Korea to house the TCS. Preparation of the initial draft was led by the ROK, whose working-level officials visited international organizations and regional cooperation secretariats to collect detailed information. On December 16, 2010, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the ROK hosted the signing ceremony. Before signing, Japan finalized its domestic procedures for effectuation of the agreement at a cabinet meeting. Korea secured the approval of the National Assembly in March 2011. Soon after, China also completed the required procedures at the National People’s Congress. The agreement came into effect on March 17, 2011, as the three countries exchanged written notifications through diplomatic channels. A secretary-general and two deputy secretary-generals were appointed at the fifth trilateral summit on March 21, 2011 in Tokyo. The Secretariat started its work on September 1 in Seoul.1

Functions and activities of the TCS

Article 2 of the “Agreement on the Establishment of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat” stipulates, “The objective of the Secretariat is to contribute to the further promotion of cooperative relations among the three countries by providing support for the operation and management of the trilateral consultative mechanisms among the Parties and by facilitating the exploration and implementation of cooperative projects.”2 The first paragraph of Article 3 classifies functions and activities into five categories: to provide administrative and technical support for the operation and management of trilateral consultative mechanisms, the trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting, the three-party committee and other ministerial meetings, and the trilateral senior foreign affairs officials’ consultation and send, if necessary, its representatives to attend major consultative mechanisms; to communicate and coordinate with the parties, and if necessary, other international organizations, particularly with other East Asian cooperation mechanisms; to explore and identify potential cooperative projects; to evaluate the projects and draft reports on them, compile necessary documents into a database, and submit annual progress reports to the three-party committee or the trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting for approval; and to conduct research on important issues related to trilateral cooperation, manage its website, and promote understanding of trilateral cooperation.

The second paragraph of Article 3 clearly states that the functions and activities of the Secretariat operate within the purview of given authority by the governments from the three countries. Basic direction and guidelines are determined at the trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting or talks among the working members who have been granted mandates authorized by the foreign ministers. High-level talks primarily regulate the overall activities of the TCS. The second paragraph of Article 3 is an exceptional clause that ensures that the Secretariat does not make arbitrary decisions, considering the regional situation where trust has yet to be fully built.

Activities of the TCS after its inception3

The TCS was present at all summits and foreign ministers’ meetings held among the three countries, including the trilateral summits in Bali, Indonesia in November 2011 and in Beijing, China in May 2012, and the trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting in Ningbo, China in April 2012. The Secretariat also attended the ASEAN+3 summit in Brunei in March 2014. Keeping summary records of the high-level conferences held among the three countries has become an important task of the Secretariat. There had been no prior neutral records of the high-level meetings. The final draft is kept by the three countries and the Secretariat with the proviso that this will not be used as evidentiary material in the event of trilateral disputes.

The TCS actively participated in high-level talks held by the three countries. It monitored the meetings and prepared the records upon request of the three countries. Together with them, the Secretariat promoted the trilateral FTA, participating in negotiations for it as an observer in 2013 and 2014. The TCS was now able to comprehensively monitor all issues related to trilateral cooperation. Since the end of 2013, many high-level trilateral meetings were cancelled due to the intensified historical and territorial disputes among the three countries. Nonetheless, some ministerial meetings such as the annual “Tripartite Environment Ministers Meeting (TEMM)” continue to be held.

After the inauguration of the TCS, it had close interactions with ASEAN in particular.

With the backdrop of the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, the TCS conducted the Trilateral Tabletop Exercise (TTX) in March 2013 in order to strengthen the capacity to coordinate a joint response in the event of major catastrophes, as agreed at the fourth trilateral summit meeting in Tokyo on May 22, 2011. The National Emergency Management Agency, Korea Meteorological Administration, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the ROK, and disaster management-related government organizations from Japan and China participated in the exercise. The TTX 2014 took place in Tokyo. The TTX is considered the most successful cooperation project initiated by the TCS.

In May 2014, the TCS and the Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) of Stanford University co-hosted a Track II dialogue on the theme, “Wartime History Issues in Asia: Pathways to Reconciliation.” The four-party talks included the United States, which played an important role in the Treaty of San Francisco and the 1945 postwar settlement. The TCS hosted the “Track II Dialogue on Sharing Experiences of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) among TCS/OSCE/ARF/SCO” in Tokyo in June 2014. It hosts an annual trilateral business networking seminar and started the Trilateral Journalist Exchange Program in March 2014 to facilitate interactions among senior correspondents. A plan for a trilateral parliamentarians’ forum has seen little progress due to the deteriorating relations among the three countries since the second half of 2012.

The Secretariat has published two reports on the progress of trilateral cooperation: “2008-2012 Progress Report” and “2012-2013 Progress Report,” both posted on the TCS website. Research on trilateral cooperation has resulted in “2012 Trilateral Statistics,” “2013 Trilateral Economic Report,” and “General Introduction to Trilateral Economic Relations.” With more workforce and budget, the TCS could launch an independent think tank under the Secretariat.

To promote the importance of trilateral cooperation to the citizens of the three countries, the TCS has been annually holding an International Forum for the Trilateral Cooperation (IFTC) on topics related to peace and co-prosperity of Northeast Asia. The Chosun Ilbo, Asahi Shimbun, and People’s Daily have sponsored the forum. Former high-ranking figures, such as Prime Minister Lee Hong-koo, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio, and State Counselor Tang Jiaxuan, have attended.

Organizational structure and operations4

The Secretariat is comprised of a secretary-general, two deputy secretary-generals, and professional staff and general services staff. The secretary-general is appointed at the trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting, nominated by each party on a rotational basis in the order of the ROK, Japan, and the PRC. The two-year tenure of the secretary-general may seem rather short;5 however, as the TCS is in its early stage and as the three countries have yet to strengthen trust, a long tenure may not be comfortable. The three agreed to appoint an ambassadorial-level official to this post, the first two occupants having been senior diplomats. The secretary-general is treated with diplomatic protocol in the international arena; he is invited to trilateral summit meetings and delivers progress reports at foreign ministers’ meetings. Iwatani Shigeo, present secretary-general of TCS, was invited to the ASEAN+3 summit in November 2013 in Brunei and was seated in line with the thirteen heads of governments. He was granted a head of government-level treatment along with the secretary-general of ASEAN.

The parties other than the government of the country of the secretary-general each nominate for a two-year-term a deputy secretary-general. The secretary-general and two deputies serve both as executive officers and members of the board of directors, a unique system. The TCS does not have a parent organization; therefore, the board of directors, which ought to be an external institution, is also housed within the Secretariat. Because not enough trust has been built, the three officials and the TCS are under the supervision of the governments of the three countries when important decisions are made.

Decisions are by consensus with all three members having virtual veto power. The Secretariat consults on important issues with the three governments, and its activities are under the supervision of the foreign ministers’ meeting. Frequently, the three countries hold deputy director-generals of the Asian Affairs Bureau meetings to discuss trilateral cooperation, which the TCS also attends. Similar to ASEAN, the operational expenditures of the Secretariat are split equally and the working language is English. For efficient operation of the TCS, English is spoken at meetings and is used in official documents and written records. The TCS website is in English, but it offers four language versions. Staff of the TCS are required to be fluent in English and a native language.

Significance of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat

Customarily, secretariats of regional cooperation organizations are established for supporting their parent organization; however, the TCS Secretariat was an exception. It was established before the inception of a regional cooperation organization by charters, treaties, or political announcements. The TCS was built on a consultative mechanism among the three countries, such as trilateral summits and foreign ministers’ meetings—a first case that a Secretariat operates without an official agreement on the establishment of a regional cooperation organization.

Announced for the first time in 2003, after the trilateral summit meeting in Bali, Indonesia, the “Joint Declaration on the Promotion of Tripartite Cooperation among, Japan, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea” contains clauses that are comparable to a charter. The “Bali Declaration” has much in common with the Bangkok Declaration, which states the aims and fundamental principles of ASEAN and mechanisms for cooperation, such as holding an annual foreign ministers’ meeting. One difference is that the Bangkok Declaration officially announced that it will establish a regional cooperation organization, called ASEAN, whereas the TCS has not done so, only using the term, Tripartite Cooperation.

The TCS was established through a top-down approach. Even though economic cooperation in the Northeast Asian region was considered stable, the overall situation of the region was not ripe for launching a regional cooperation mechanism at the time. Territorial disputes and unresolved issues of history led to conflict. It was not an opportune time to push ahead with a regional integration framework. The working-level practitioners of the three countries are said to have avoided discussions on adopting a charter. Creating a charter would either take a considerable amount of time or the three parties would be unable to arrive at a conclusion.

The inception of the TCS is significant in several respects. First, this is the first regional cooperation mechanism among the three Northeast Asian countries with diplomats working together under one roof, despite the conflicts in the region. From the perspective of the ROK, it is meaningful that it stood on equal footing with China and Japan, the two regional powers. Second, this delivers a message that the three countries are determined to foster a future-oriented relationship of peace and mutual prosperity. Third, the TCS is a cooperative effort of Northeast Asia, holding open the prospect of this becoming the third biggest economic region next to NAFTA and the EU by institutionalizing cooperation and filling a gap in an area with stunted regionalism. Fifth, the TCS is able to contribute to East Asian regional cooperation, which currently pivots on ASEAN+3. When the EU was working towards integration, longtime rivals, France and Germany, functioned as an engine for European integration. China and Japan may assume a leading role, but if they should fail, the ROK and the ASEAN member states may be able to fill the leadership gap in the East Asian region as middle power countries.


1. The official title of the secretariat is “the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS).” When officials had working-level meetings, some argued that the names of the three countries should be included in the title, but the idea was dismissed, since the title would be too long and agreeing on the order of the countries’ names would take too much time.

2. For more information, see “Agreement on the Establishment of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat,” (accessed July 8, 2014).

3. From the 2008-2012 and 2012-2013 progressive reports and from the website of the secretariat, (accessed July 8, 2014).

4. For more information on the organization structure and operation of the TCS, see “Agreement on the Establishment of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat,” (accessed July 8, 2014).

5. The author believes that short tenure contributes to the progress of the Secretariat.