With this summer’s closely watched events marking the 70th year since the end of World War II drawing to a close, Japan should gear up to rebuild its relations with China and South Korea, which have been severely strained in recent years over wartime history-related issues and territorial rows. A proposed trilateral summit, which could be held as early as next month — and for the first time in more than three years — would provide a good venue for rapprochement.
The Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping on Thursday held a massive military parade featuring the latest weaponry and military hardware of the People’s Liberation Army to commemorate what Beijing calls the 70th anniversary of victory in its war of resistance against Japanese aggression. In his speech at the event, Xi said the victory “crushed the plot of Japanese militarists to colonize and enslave China and put an end to China’s national humiliation of suffering successive defeats at the hands of foreign aggressors in modern times” and “re-established China as a major country in the world.”
While the parade was apparently aimed at demonstrating China’s growing international clout, thereby legitimizing the Communist Party’s rule of the country since 1949, Xi did not refer to its relations with Japan today or any criticism of Tokyo over current bilateral disputes. On the eve of the parade, Xi agreed with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who attended the event unlike leaders from Western powers and Japan, that they should hold a trilateral summit with Japan “at a convenient time, including late October or early November,” in South Korea. No such summit has been held since May 2012. In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga indicated Japan’s readiness to take part and said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is willing to hold a separate bilateral meeting with Park if offered by the trilateral summit host.
Wartime history has been a sensitive issue as Japan marked the 70th year since its surrender in World War II. Speculation over Abe’s August statement marking the war anniversary centered on whether he would repeat the words used by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 on the occasion of half a century after the war — in which he expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for the suffering of Asian people over Japan’s aggression and colonial rule — and how Abe’s new statement would impact Japan’s already troubled ties with its East Asian neighbors.
The responses of both Beijing and Seoul were subdued when Abe, in the statement released Aug. 14, said Japan’s “feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for its wartime actions repeatedly expressed by previous governments “will remain unshakable into the future.” He referred to “aggression” without specifying that Japan waged a war of aggression in the 1930s and ’40s, and said Japan “shall never again resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes” and Japan has “abandoned colonial rule forever” without mentioning Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Abe is widely believed to have tamed his personal viewpoints and took the possible reactions from China and South Korea into consideration when he crafted the closely watched statement.
Concern that this summer’s war anniversary-related events could add to the tensions in Japan’s relations with China and South Korea may have proved unwarranted. But that doesn’t mean that the history-related issues have been resolved among the three East Asian neighbors. As a private panel of experts who advised Abe on the war anniversary statement concluded in its final report, full reconciliation with China or South Korea has not been achieved in the seven decades following the end of the war and colonial rule.
In a reception after Thursday’s parade, Xi did not forget to add pressure on Japan, warning that any denial of the war of aggression against China would be “an insult to human conscience and inevitably lose the trust of people in the world.” Without naming Abe, Xi went on to say that people born after the war “should have correct historical views and take the lessons of history to heart” — a veiled reference to Abe’s remark in his statement last month that “we must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.”
The ever-present tensions over history-related issues will continue to haunt Japan’s relations with China and South Korea. But they should not be allowed to stand in the way of improving Japan’s ties with its strategically important neighbors. While Abe has cited China’s military buildup as one of the reasons behind his push for security legislation that would expand the scope of Self-Defense Forces’ overseas activities, China is Japan’s largest trading partner and South Korea’s as well — a key factor behind the growing closeness between Beijing and Seoul in recent years that has seen Xi and Park already meet six times.
Abe and Xi have met twice since last year — both times on the sidelines of international conferences — and Tokyo-Beijing ties have rebounded from the low point they had reached, but Abe has yet to hold one-on-one talks with Park in the more than two years since they took office. Japan’s strained ties with China and South Korea remain a source of concern for the United States, the mutual ally of Tokyo and Seoul as well as a major trading partner of China, with which it holds regular high-level strategic dialogue.
Managing the emotion-charged disputes related to wartime history and the bitter territorial rows will require top-level dialogue. The leaders of Japan, China and South Korea should take the end of the events related to the war anniversary as a cue to resume their regular dialogue and hammer out political solutions to the problems marring their ties. The proposed trilateral summit could kick off such efforts.