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An escalating “trade war” betweenJapan and South Korea could be good news for China, both economically anddiplomatically, observers say.


With Tokyo’s exportrestrictions on South Korean firms likely to prove mutually destructive,Chinese manufacturers could gain a competitive edge, according to analysts,while the souring of relations between two key US allies is likely to leaveBeijing’s diplomats rubbing their hands.


With the tit-for-tat measures compromisingthe tech industries of both countries, experts say Chinese manufacturers – andparticularly the country’s nascent semiconductor industry – would be among thebest placed to fill the void.


The seeds of the trade row lie in a disputebetween Seoul and Tokyo over the legacy of Japan’s colonial rule overthe Korean peninsula prior to the end of World War II. Tokyo, which believes itsettled all necessary compensation under a treaty signed in 1965, has been angeredby a South Korean court’s recent order that Japanese firms must compensate wartime victimsof forced labour.


In response, Tokyo has said it will imposeexport restrictions on three materials: fluorinated polyamides, used insmartphones; photoresists, used in semiconductors; and hydrogen fluoride, usedin semiconductors. South Korean firms are heavily reliant on Japan for allthree – in May, the country sourced 94 per cent of fluorinated polyamidesand 92 per cent of photoresists from Japan, according to the KoreaInternational Trade Association.


However, the reliance isn’t just oneway. Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, a visiting professor of the College of Economics andInternational Trade at Pusan National University in South Korea, said the rowbetween Tokyo and Seoul would be mutually destructive.


“Japan has been a source of chemicals and manufacturing technologiesthat are vital to South Korean industries, while for Japan, South Korea is avital market for exports,” Hinata-Yamaguchi said.


Analysts say this intense trade battle willultimately benefit Chinese manufacturers.
As a result of its trade war with the US, Chinahas been pushing ahead with the development of its own microchip industry,reducing its industrial reliance on foreign countries.
At the core of that plan is itssemiconductor industry. Under the Made in China 2025 plan, Beijing aims toproduce 40 per cent of the semiconductors it uses by 2020 and 70 per cent by2025 – up from less than 10 per cent at present.


Analysts say this aim will be boosted iftensions between Tokyo and Seoul disrupt global supply chains, as Chinese firmswill step in to the vacuum.


“If we limit the ongoing trade conflict to a short-term squeeze onthe South Korean semiconductor industry, we can anticipate that if South Korea’sperformance on the global market is restricted, China may seize the opportunityto climb to the top,” Park said. “China certainly has motivations to up its game in the semiconductorindustry … time will tell whether China becomes the sole beneficiary in thisprocess,” Park said.


No OLED screens for Japan if trade disputeis ‘pushed to extreme’


If China can take advantage of the presenttensions, it would merely be continuing a decades-long jostling of powerbetween the three countries in the semiconductor industry. In the 1990s and2000s, Japan was dominant; from the 2010s South Korea has been in the ascendancy.


“The semiconductor industry is very complex and industry leadershiphas been shifting time and again during the past four decades,” Park said.


And, with both Tokyo and Seoul threateningfurther retaliation, some analysts wonder whether now is China’s time tolead.


“Japan and South Korea have been in a state of diplomatic paralysisfor a long time. However, the deterioration of economic relations between thetwo would not only cause economic problems on both sides – it would[plunge] bilateral ties to a whole new [low],” Hinata-Yamaguchisaid.


“Given the collateral economic damage and risk of the situationworsening, it is vital for the two governments to restore relations. Yet giventhe myriad, politicised problems that have plagued the relations, bothgovernments will need to take bold measures to salvage the strategicallyimportant bilateral ties.


“At the end of the day, how much China benefits from the conflictbetween Japan and South Korea depends on how much worse relations get,”Hinata-Yamaguchi said.