Global turmoil trumps trio’s gripes

Japan, China, South Korea shelve their disputes to jointly address financial meltdown


FUKUOKA — The global economic slump transcended historical and territorial rows in East Asia as Japan, China and South Korea met Saturday for their first trilateral summit and discussed ways to fight the financial meltdown.

But as the three leaders united to face the wild economic front, experts expressed hope that the collaboration leads to deeper mutual understanding and opens new doors of bilateral ties.

“The fact that the Asian neighbors had never met in this form prior to today is odd,” Keio University professor Masao Okonogi said. “Although the economic crisis may have played a role, this meeting will hopefully become the first step for all sides to look beyond current issues and into the future.”

An agreement to hold an independent trilateral summit was reached in November 2007, with the event tentatively slated for last summer.

But a territorial row resurfaced in July between Tokyo and Seoul, putting the gathering on hold.

Seoul protested and withdrew its ambassador to Tokyo after Japan decided to declare in school textbooks that South Korea-held islets in the Sea of Japan are Japanese territory. The islets are known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in the South.

The three countries later looked to hold the summit in September, but the event was delayed in the month by Yasuo Fukuda’s sudden resignation as prime minister and the subsequent Liberal Democratic Party presidential election.

Being able to hold the Saturday summit is “a momentous achievement,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said of the arduous steps taken to achieve the talks.

“This is a historic event, for the three countries to sit together for the first time and talk,” he said, noting that the global economic crisis, ironically, allowed the three nations to put their various disagreements aside for their leaders to come together.

China also disputes Japan’s control of the Senkaku islets. The row heated up again Monday morning when two Chinese survey ships were spotted by the Japan Coast Guard within Japan’s territory in the East China Sea and remained there for over nine hours.

When asked if the intrusion might mar ties with China, the senior ministry official denied such a possibility.

“China is probably not at the point of raising the issue aggressively. Their exports are declining for the first time in years. They are desperate for countermeasures,” he said, adding that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was “very keen” to hold the trilateral meeting.

The Takeshima row also was put on the back burner as South Korea and Japan discussed measures to aid the slumping won.

Despite their unresolved territorial and historical rows, the summit seemed to signal the three nations are willing to cooperate.

“To be honest, we had no idea what the other countries were doing in Africa,” a Foreign Ministry official in charge of African aid told reporters following a preliminary trilateral meeting Friday in Tokyo. “But as we began to talk and exchange opinions on African development, we became confident that joint assistance cooperation in Africa is very possible.”

Although China has long been seen as Japan’s major rival in terms of penetrating the African continent through development assistance, Japan agreed to share its knowledge on African development obtained through the Tokyo International Conference on African Development. It also asked China to raise the transparency of its “resource diplomacy” in Africa.

The three states agreed Saturday to host the Trilateral Policy Dialogue on Africa on a rotational basis. “I didn’t expect much from our talks at first, but surprisingly, I saw some outcomes,” the ministry official said.

Keio University’s Okonogi saw Saturday’s meeting as an occasion for East Asia to stand on its own from the U.S. and to show the world what it could do to mitigate the economic downturn.

“It is not clear to what extent the public will view the trilateral summit as an achievement of Prime Minister Aso,” the foreign policy expert said, but he praised Japan, China and South Korea for being able to unite under difficulties.

China-S. Korea FTA

FUKUOKA (Kyodo) Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao proposed to South Korean President Lee Myung Bak on Saturday that the two countries start negotiations on a bilateral free-trade agreement at an early date, the Seoul presidential office said.

Lee, in turn, emphasized the need for the two economies to expand trade, the office said. The two leaders met at a hotel in the city of Fukuoka on the sidelines of a trilateral summit also involving Prime Minister Taro Aso.

Lee and Wen also agreed to work closely on fighting the global financial turmoil and resolving the North Korean nuclear and other issues, the office said.

On the stalled six-party negotiations aimed at denuclearizing North Korea, Wen was quoted as saying he hopes a proposal will be made soon that is acceptable to all parties so the talks can make headway.

Scholarships urged

FUKUOKA (Kyodo) A group of 300 young people from Japan, China and South Korea proposed to the leaders of the three countries Saturday that they institute a common scholarship program for people wanting to study in institutions of higher education to nurture future leaders in East Asia.

Their proposals, including the call for the scholarship program, was presented by representatives of the group to Prime Minister Taro Aso, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, who held a trilateral summit in Dazaibu, Fukuoka Prefecture.