Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to hold a summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Seoul without first visiting Pyonyang reflects the rapidly declining relationship between China and North Korea. Xi and Park demonstrated a united front in opposing nuclear weapons development on the Korean Peninsula — albeit without naming North Korea.
Tokyo must not close its eyes to the other aspect of the Xi-Park summit — their latest attempt to forge a common front against Japan. The Abe administration should realize that its diplomacy has had the effect of drawing China and South Korea closer together. The Seoul talks was the fifth meeting between Xi and Park since both leaders took office. Meanwhile Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has yet to have one-on-one talks with either Xi or Park as Japan’s relations with both countries have grown increasingly strained over a host of history-related and territorial disputes. The Abe administration should not spare any effort to improve ties with China and South Korea so Japan will not end up isolated in the region.
In a joint statement issued after their July 3 meeting, Xi and Park agreed on the need to resume the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and urged Pyongyang to follow through on its pledges in the September 2005 joint statement at the six-party talks, which called for the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Such positions by China and South Korea should be seen as a welcome development for Japan as it works with the two countries on reopening the stalled talks. Still, in their meeting Xi and Park are said to have shared a concern with Japan’s decision to lift some of its sanctions against North Korea — announced just before Xi traveled to Seoul — in exchange for Pyongyang’s offer to reinvestigate the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by the reclusive state in the 1970s and ’80s. An aide to Park on diplomatic and security issues said the two leaders agreed that the lifting of sanctions carries a risk of ruining international cooperation aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. While China’s Foreign Ministry initially expressed its welcome of Japan’s decision, an aide to U.S. President Barack Obama commented that Tokyo should not endanger the multinational sanctions on North Korea. Japan should proceed carefully on this issue.
Xi and Park also agreed to build a “mature bilateral strategic partnership” based on mutual trust, including regular mutual visits of the countries’ leaders and strategic dialogue between high-ranking officials. They also concurred on the need for efforts to reach a final accord on a bilateral free trade agreement by the end of this year, as well as to launch a direct exchange of the the yuan and won. These agreements reflect increasingly close economic ties between China and South Korea. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and the $274 billion in bilateral trade in 2013 was larger than South Korea’s trade with Japan and the United States combined.
The Xi-Park summit points to a rapid change in Northeast Asian relations, which have been long characterized by a division between Japan and South Korea as U.S. allies on the one hand, and China and North Korea on the other. China and South Korea are now beginning to present themselves as partners with growing influence in the region. The Abe administration must consider how to prevent a potential clash in interests between Japan and its two neighbors.
During their meeting, Xi and Park shared concern over the Abe administration’s reinterpretation of Japan’s Constitution to enable the nation to engage in collective self-defense, as well as its review of the background to the 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono over “comfort women” forced to serve in wartime brothels for the Japanese military. The U.S. government has welcomed Abe’s move on collective self-defense, so Seoul’s reported opposition indicates a crack among the regional allies. The Abe administration needs to be aware of its policies’ repercussions.
An appendix of the Xi-Park joint statement said China and South Korea will pursue a joint study into the comfort women matter. However, it did not directly criticize Japan. At their news conference, Xi and Park also refrained from touching on issues related to the region’s modern history and avoided criticizing Japan by name. This may be a sign that they want to avoid further deterioration of their countries’ ties with Japan.
The Abe administration, which repeatedly states that the door is always open for resuming dialogue with both countries, should seize the opportunity to end the abnormal situation in which Japan’s leader has not held bilateral meetings with his South Korean and Chinese counterparts since taking office more than 1 1/2 years ago. Abe should realize that his historical revisionism and his new initiative in defense policy are placing additional strain on Japan’s already tepid ties with its two closest neighbors.