National / Politics

Trilateral East Asia summit will signal symbolic thaw with Japan: experts

by Reiji Yoshida and Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writers

The leaders of the three most powerful countries in East Asia will finally meet in Seoul on Sunday, where China and South Korea apparently intend to set aside their animosity toward Japan to hold diplomatic talks.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will also hold a bilateral meeting later with South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Monday that will be the first Japan-South Korea summit since May 2012.

Experts interviewed by The Japan Times said they expect little substantial progress to be made on the diplomatic front, but say the events themselves will have a large symbolic impact by signaling the start of reconciliation with Japan.

The Park-Abe summit will also be construed as a sort of diplomatic victory for Abe, given that Park dropped her earlier refusal to meet unless he promised to apologize over historical issues.

Nevertheless, Seoul appears to be sticking to its new strategy of leaning toward China while de-emphasizing ties with Japan, the experts said.

“The two will stand together for a photo session, but Park will never smile, although Abe may do so,” predicted University of Niigata Prefecture professor Yuki Asaba, an expert on Korean affairs.

“The relationship still remains very tough. We should get used to the ‘new normal’ of the Japan-South Korea relationship,” he said.

Since her inauguration in February 2013, Park has chosen China as a new strategic partner, based on its rapidly growing economic and diplomatic presence. China has since become South Korea’s No. 1 export destination, accounting for as much as 25.4 percent of shipments in 2014.

South Korea relies heavily on exports, which account for as much as half of its gross domestic product. Exports and imports with China have expanded rapidly, surpassing those with Japan for the first time in 2003 and those with the U.S. in 2004 in terms of value.

This emerging environment has created a “new normal” for South Korean diplomacy, attaching more weight to China and far less to Japan and the United States, Asaba said.

South Korea recently announced that it would host neither a dinner banquet nor a luncheon for Abe, despite Tokyo’s reported request for such treatment.

This unusual snub underlines the serious lack of trust between the leaders, Asaba said.”The fact that the two met itself will show the relationship has improved to some extent, which is good. But whether you can expect something substantial is another story,” he added.

Park reportedly insisted that she would not meet with Abe unless he promised to offer an apology over the “comfort women,” those who were forced to work at Japanese military brothels before and during the war.

Why, then, did Park drop her insistence and agree to meet Abe without conditions?

Korean affairs expert Hideki Okuzono, an associate professor at the University of Shizuoka, pointed out that Park has drawn fire both at home and abroad for eroding ties too much by sticking to her guns on history.

In April, Abe delivered a historic speech to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress and succeeded in winning the confidence of many Americans who had been critical of Japan’s wartime misdeeds.

In the meantime, Chinese President Xi Jinping has twice met one-on-one with Abe, signaling Beijing’s willingness to improve its long-strained relationship with Japan, Okuzono said.

“Park has been much criticized at home for being isolated” in diplomatic games involving Japan, China, the United States and South Korea, Okuzono said.

The trilateral meeting will provide a good excuse for Park to hold a private meeting with Abe, since it is natural for leaders to do so on the sidelines of multinational summits, he added.

On Sunday, Abe will also hold his first bilateral summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Sino-Japanese ties were heavily strained in September 2012 when Japan effectively nationalized the Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by Beijing, which calls them Diaoyu, and Taiwan, which calls them Tiaoyutai.

Xi then took the reigns of power in March 2013 and had no choice but to maintain a tough stance against Japan, said Noriyuki Kawamura, a professor at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies who is an expert on Japan-China relations.

However, more than three years after the Senkaku row began, Beijing has finally started to soften its stance, Kawamura said.

“The Chinese domestic economy is now slowing down. (China) wants to expand economic exchanges with Japan,” he said.

He also pointed out that, in the more than two years that have passed since his inauguration, Xi has firmly cemented his power base in China’s political and military circles, which apparently allows him to handle politically sensitive affairs involving Japan much more flexibly.

Yet Xi has consistently maintained that he will never make any concessions on history and territorial issues. This means he has carefully chosen to keep his options open, Kawamura said.

In 1987, then-Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, widely regarded as a reformist leader, was dismissed by conservative executives within the party. Among the reasons that Hu’s enemies cited for his dismissal was his “pro-Japan” diplomatic stance.

Since then, being friendly toward Japan has been a risky endeavor for any Chinese leader.