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China should seek US, Japan dialogue

In the old days, when Japan was the world's second-largest economy, American officials used to describe the U.S.-Japan relationship as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none.” Nowadays such words, if spoken, refer to China, not Japan.

But, of course, Japan continues to be vitally important, not only to the United States but to China as well.

In fact, the United States, China and Japan — the world's three largest economies — share a common responsibility for the well-being of the Asia-Pacific region. They should be working together closely and should be meeting regularly on a trilateral basis.

But such meetings have never been held.

This past weekend (April 7-8), China, Japan and South Korea held talks on regional security and cooperation in the Chinese city of Ningbo.

Such trilateral discussions have become routine among these three countries and take place at various levels, including annual summit meetings. They are clearly useful, from clearing the air where there are doubts to creating mechanisms for further cooperation, such as discussions on a trilateral free trade agreement.

The United States, too, engages in trilateral discussions, such as with its neighbors Canada and Mexico, or with Asian allies Japan and South Korea.

But what is missing — and badly needed — are trilateral talks involving the United States, China and Japan.

The United States sees Japan as its most important ally in Asia and that bilateral relationship is in good shape.

The United States also sees China as a rising power that will soon become the world's biggest economy and that may challenge American hegemony in the region.

Meanwhile, Japan is in the uncomfortable position of having to depend on China for its economic well-being — since China has replaced the United States as Japan's biggest trading partner — while relying on the United States for its security.

Thus, when tensions arise between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku islands — known in Chinese as the Taioyu islands — Tokyo seeks Washington's reassurance that those Japan-administered islands are covered by their security treaty. Such reassurances were offered both by the Bush and now the Obama administration.

But, of course, the United States has no intention of being dragged into a war with China by Japan over a bunch of inhabited islands.

The most recent incident was in September 2010, when Japan arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler after the vessel collided with Japanese coast guard vessels, sparking a crisis in Sino-Japanese relations.

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