The chances of a diplomatic trifecta for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the November APEC summit in Beijing are firming up, but what (if anything) would that actually mean beyond the usual photo opportunities, sound bites, and pledges to improve troubled relations? Abe has been publically pulling for months to meet individually on the sidelines of the summit with China’s President Xi Jinping, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye. However, the tangible benefits of these meetings could be difficult to tease out. With officials confirming on Tuesday that Abe and Putin will indeed meet, and Japanese sources indicating that the chances for talks with Xi are improving as well, what is the most that Japan can hope to gain from these relatively brief sideline encounters?
Should Abe be able to meet with all three of his contemporaries, there are a few issues that could see positive movement, provided Abe makes the prerequisite concessions. Xi is likely interested in improving the deteriorating state of Japanese investment in his country as these companies have shifted largely to Southeast Asia. This is in part due to the uncertain and volatile relationship between the two governments since the Japanese government formally purchased the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu Islands in August 2012. However, Xi is unlikely to make any move to improve this situation unless there is at least an informal assurance from the Japanese government that Abe will stay away from the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, perhaps indefinitely.
With Russia the bilateral summit is already assured, but Putin will be looking to Japan for help in the continuing Ukrainian crisis, as Tokyo’s Western allies continue to ratchet up pressure on Moscow. Abe at this point is most likely looking for movement on their disputed Kuril Islands/Northern Territories, and possibly room for Japanese investment in Russian Far East energy projects. Publicly tangible progress for either of these leaders issues will be difficult to gauge, but a lack of further Japanese sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, or a reduction in Russian military or developmental activity around the islands, would be likely indicators of progress.
A meeting with Park is still not assured, although Seoul appears to be warming to it. With South Korea, Abe’s goals are less specific. An improvement in ties with the South gives Japan more security in its own backyard, as Sino-South Korean ties improved noticeably over the summer. Reducing tension here gives Japan more bandwidth to challenge China’s assertiveness in South and Southeast Asia, where both countries recently concluded their own extended state visits, complete with businessmen and investment deals in tow. To reduce tensions with South Korea, Abe is likely going to have to offer assurances that Japan will not make any changes to or statements against its Kono apology, which acknowledged Japan’s use of thousands of Korean “comfort women” during the Second World War. However, the Asahi Shimbun noted on Wednesday that a close aide to Abe hinted that a new statement could be issued by the government next year, which might supersede the Kono apology.
There is not much yet to suggest that Abe will be able to secure all of his goals at the summit. In fact, he could end up settling for just a quick meeting with Putin in which they both agree to sideline their mutual interests until the Ukrainian crisis is settled, while not speaking with Park or Xi at all. However, as the chances of holding these bilateral talks have improved steadily since this summer, the above scenarios are going to be key indicators of progress.