After a two-and-a-half year hiatus, the leaders of Japan, China and South Korea finally met in Tokyo on Wednesday May 9 for a trilateral summit that was originally conceived as an annual event.
Simmering tensions over historical and territorial issues have strained Japan’s ties with both China and South Korea for years, but global events – including the rapidly developing North Korean situation on their doorstep – appear to have provided the nudge required for renewed diplomatic engagement at the highest levels of government. The summit occurred annually from its inception in 2008 until 2012, but momentum seemed to slip away after Shinzo Abe’s return as Japanese prime minister in late 2012. Seoul and Beijing expressed anger when the prime minister personally visited Yasukuni Shrine – which honors Japan’s war dead including those classed as war criminals – in 2013. The leaders finally got around a table together in Seoul in November 2015 and waited a similar amount of time before convening this latest meeting in Tokyo.
Officials from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs insist that the delay since the previous three-way summit was merely a scheduling issue. In the meantime, they note, there have been many trilateral meetings at ministerial level. Clearly, however, ensuring that the leaders’ summit happens regularly requires political will.
Abe joined South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in front of the media at the Akasaka Palace State Guest House in central Tokyo and made the right noises about closer cooperation. Citing the countries’ physical proximity, Abe argued the summit was “a very solid foundation” for responding to regional and global issues. “Thanks to the bonds nurtured through this summit we were able to ride over those difficult challenges,” he said after the seventh trilateral meeting. Li added that expanded people-to-people exchanges among the three countries would “strengthen popular support for our cooperation.” Such coordination, Li said, would be “an anchor for stability in the region and beyond, and an important driver for global development.”
When it came to regional stability, the North Korean nuclear negotiations were at the forefront. In welcoming last month’s inter-Korean summit agreement and voicing support for the complete denuclearization of the peninsula, the three leaders stressed that they were working together to resolve the issue. However, it was apparent from the nuances of their individual statements that the countries still have differences about the best way to achieve denuclearization. Abe, who has to date been most skeptical of dialogue with the regime, called for North Korea to prove it was taking “concrete steps” and he emphasized the continuing role of sanctions.
But in a China-South Korea side-meeting, Li and Moon talked about offering economic incentives down the track. The pair argued that the international community should put rewards on the table “instead of demanding North Korea unconditionally denuclearize,” the Yonhap News Agency reported, citing Moon’s press secretary. Still, Japanese officials said there was value in the leaders getting together to talk openly, even if they each favored a variety of approaches. “The three leaders can frankly talk about their positions and listen to the positions of other countries,” a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said before the meeting. The three leaders’ joint statement was delayed for many hours after the trilateral summit ended as the final wording was being negotiated.
It was perhaps in the economic field where the leaders were able to reach the strongest joint position. China, Japan, and South Korea vowed to accelerate negotiations for a free trade agreement among themselves, and also push for faster progress on a high-quality Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). These were portrayed as efforts to uphold free trade and an open world economy – an implicit rebuke to U.S. President Donald Trump’s instincts on trade. Li was particularly vocal in his remarks to the media, saying that the three countries had benefited from globalization and “must not give up eating for fear of choking” – a Chinese proverb. Their pledge to oppose protectionism was important to prevent jeopardizing the global economic recovery, Li added. China added its name to a joint statement that mentioned the importance of safeguarding intellectual property rights and dealing with excess capacity in industrial sectors – although specific actions on these contentious topics were missing.
Arguably it was during the subsequent bilateral meetings that more tangible results were achieved. Abe and Li agreed that Japan and China’s maritime and aerial communication mechanism to avoid clashes in the East China Sea would begin on June 8 – about a decade after it was first mooted. Kyodo News reported that the agreement was silent on whether the mechanism covered the around the disputed islets known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands, because Tokyo held that these were part of its territory. (China also claims the Japan-controlled islands, calling them Diaoyu.)
Japan and China further agreed to to set up a public-private sector council to consider specific projects of potential cooperation related to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. There was no shift in Japan’s position that it would consider involvement in particular projects on a case-by-case basis. An expert group, meanwhile, will consider a potential easing of China’s restrictions on imports of food products imposed after the Fukushima nuclear accident.
This all adds to the general sense of warming ties between China and Japan, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of their Treaty of Peace and Friendship. The previous week, Abe had a phone call with President Xi Jinping – the first known time that a prime minister of Japan and president of China have had such telephone contact. Li’s four-day stay in Japan, designated as an official visit, included an audience with the emperor and a banquet. Li invited Abe to visit China, with the trip expected to occur later this year.
Relations between Japan and South Korea also seemed to be improving. At the end of a working lunch, Abe produced a birthday cake to celebrate Moon’s first year in office. In their meeting, Abe even stated that he “highly appreciated” the way the South Korean government had handled a dispute over a statue of a wartime forced laborer that activists wanted to place outside the Japanese consulate in Busan, according to a briefing by Norio Maruyama, the press secretary at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The pair agreed to resume shuttle diplomacy, with Moon inviting Abe to visit South Korea next.
As for the trilateral summit, Moon told reporters there was a need to “institutionalize” the cooperation among the three countries. To that end, the leaders agreed to expand the role of the secretariat. China will chair the summit next, and Li said his country was ready to work with the others to fully implement their specific agreements. It may seem symbolic, but the leaders also noted that the region’s dominance of the current Olympics and Paralympics roster provided further impetus for cultural and sports exchanges: South Korea’s PyeongChang hosted the 2018 Winter Games, Tokyo is the venue for the 2020 Summer Games and Beijing will be the site of the 2022 Winter Games. Whether the scheduling of the next leaders’ summit is an acrobatic feat, however, remains to be seen.