NEW YORK – Expectations that rapprochement may benefit their economies have prompted China and South Korea to reconsider their strained relations with Japan, but obstacles still need to be cleared before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can hold his first summit talks with their leaders.
Abe has repeatedly said he hopes to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye when Beijing hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in November. But Xi and Park have so far refused to meet one-on-one with Abe, citing disagreements over territory and perceptions of wartime history.
A series of behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts by all three sides, however, have increased the chances of long-awaited summits.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida had separate talks with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, and South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se in Myanmar last month and met them again last Thursday during his stay in New York.
At a press conference earlier this month in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed hope that Abe and Xi will meet later this year.
“If the world’s second- and third-largest economies talk, the meeting will be a dynamic one,” the top government spokesman said.
Political analyst Norio Toyoshima said it is important the leaders meet.
“The amount of Japanese investment in China and South Korea has fallen sharply. We all know there are things that you can agree on and you can’t agree on. It’s important for the leaders to meet and exchange views. Bad relations only hurt both sides, especially economically.”
Toyoshima added that Abe appeased Beijing when he reshuffled his Liberal Democratic Party executive lineup in early September by bringing in two pro-China veteran lawmakers — Sadakazu Tanigaki and Toshihiro Nikai.
While many people are worried about Japan-China ties, South Korea is more likely to engage with Japan at the urging of the United States as Washington intends to keep close contact with Tokyo and Seoul amid concerns over China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region.
Abe and Park met once in March, in the Hague in a trilateral summit brokered by U.S. President Barack Obama.
But others are more cautious.
“I just can’t be optimistic about Sino-Japanese relations toward next year even if they have summit talks,” said Yasuyuki Ishida, research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
“China may try to improve relations with Japan in its bid to host a successful APEC summit in November, but such a move might be only temporary. The way China looks at Japan is still severe.”
Abe was once very outspoken on China’s attempt to change the status quo on disputed territories by force, mentioning it on almost every trip to a foreign country. But he has recently toned down his references in the hopes of mending Japan-China ties.
“China should use Japan as a partner of its economic revitalization,” said political analyst Hirotada Asakawa. “There will be more jobs and more Chinese exports to Japan if Japanese companies step up investment in China.”
Japanese companies have shifted many of their resources into regions such as Southeast Asia amid tension between Tokyo and Beijing.
Asked if Abe may visit the controversial war-related Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Asakawa said, “If he does so, it will be a fatal blow to his own government. The United States voiced regret when the prime minister visited last December, so I don’t think he will go again.”
Yasukuni, which honors convicted Japanese war criminals along with the war dead, is seen as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism by some countries, particularly China and South Korea.