SEOUL - In a sign of a warming relations among Japan, China and South Korea, the leaders of the three countries agreed Sunday to revive their annual trilateral summit after a 3½-year hiatus, with plans to meet in Japan next year.
Despite disputes over territory and wartime history, the trio pledged to improve their partnership in the spirit of “facing history squarely and advancing toward the future,” South Korean President Park Geun-hye said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang after the summit in Seoul.
The leaders agreed to speed up negotiations on a three-way free trade agreement encompassing 20 percent of the world’s economy, and to build cooperation on a range of other areas, Park said.
“I believe it is significant that the trilateral cooperative system, which is an important framework of peace and prosperity in the Northeast Asia region, has revived,” she said, speaking through an interpreter.
Announcing that Japan will host next year’s trilateral summit, Abe said progress in improving the relationships with Japan’s regional rivals had been made.
“With today’s forward-looking discussion a starting point, we would like to make next year’s summit in Japan fruitful,” he said.
In Sunday’s talks, the three leaders reaffirmed their “firm opposition” to North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program and vowed to continue efforts to resume “meaningful” six-party talks “at an early date,” according to a joint declaration issued after they met.
The stalled negotiations aimed at ending Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions involve China, Japan, South and North Korea, Russia and the United States.
Along with the economy, the three leaders agreed to strengthen cooperation in nuclear safety, disaster risk reduction, the environment, health and youth exchange, among other areas, according to Park and Abe.
Although sensitive issues — including Korean “comfort women” who were forced to work in wartime brothels for the Japanese military, and China’s advances into the East and South China seas — continue to complicate Tokyo’s relations with Beijing and Seoul, analysts are watching to see whether Japan will be able to sustain the signs of improvement in its ties with them after a series of talks in Seoul.
“One humble hope is that the three leaders will at least agree to continue to hold the three-way talks and that Park and Abe agree to revive the ‘shuttle summits’ — in which Korean and Japanese leaders exchange short working visits whenever necessary — between the two sides,” the Korea Herald said in an editorial carried in the paper’s weekend edition.
Despite the three economies close links, strained relations between Japan and its two neighbors have prevented them from integrating in a way that would fully utilize their potential and create synergies.
“Economic interdependence has rapidly deepened, but cooperation and potentials have not been fully realized due to conflicts caused by political and security issues, and also due to being unable to resolve issues that have given rise to animosity,” Park told the summit, part of which was open to the media.
Abe said, in apparent reference to what many Japanese see as seemingly endless criticism by China and South Korea of Japan’s aggression and colonial rule during and before World War II, “It is not productive to focus too much on a certain period of the past.” He underlined Japan’s postwar path as a peace-loving nation.
“Japan and South Korea and Japan and China have a history of cooperation and development,” Abe was quoted by a senior Japanese official as telling Park and Li. “We would like to further weave a forward-looking history of cooperation involving Japan, China and South Korea.”
The meeting came as South Korea expressed a desire to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the U.S.-led free trade initiative involving 12 Pacific Rim economies, including Japan.
China is also not a member of the TPP, which represents part of the U.S. strategic “rebalance” toward Asia.
Referring to a trilateral FTA, Abe said the three “should aim for an early conclusion of negotiations for comprehensive and high-level accords for a Japan-China-South Korea FTA.”
Japan, China and South Korea agreed to launch three-way FTA negotiations at their last summit in May 2012 in Beijing.
Along with the economy, the three leaders agreed to strengthen cooperation in civil nuclear safety, disaster risk reduction, the environment, health, youth exchange, among other areas.
“We will cooperate for the adoption of a legally binding and ambitious agreement” that is applicable to all parties taking part in U.N. climate change negotiations to be held in Paris later this year, the joint statement declared.
Later in the day, Abe and Li agreed in their first one-on-one talks that the two countries will resume high-level economic dialogue at an early date in 2016, following a six-year hiatus.
Abe said he has “unwavering faith” in the principle of building strategic relations of mutual benefit with China, amid a gradual-but-sure improvement in diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Beijing.
However, Li said that for the better future of the two Asian powers they should properly handle sensitive historical issues.
Much of Abe’s discussions with Li focused on ways to give added impetus to the ongoing thaw in relations between Tokyo and Beijing, according to Japanese officials.
Among other issues, however, Abe touched on China’s unilateral gas field development near the median line between its shoreline and that of Japan in the East China Sea, the officials said.
In July, Japan unveiled a map and aerial photographs of 12 offshore structures as evidence of China’s actions and criticized the country for carrying out the work counter to the spirit of a 2008 accord between the two nations on joint gas development in the area.
Abe and Li agreed that the two countries will aim for the early resumption of long-stalled negotiations on a joint gas development project in the sea, according to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda.
The two leaders also agreed to speed up the process of setting up a maritime communication mechanism as part of efforts to avert accidental clashes in the East China Sea, he said.
Hagiuda and other senior Japanese officials refused to confirm whether the leaders discussed the South China Sea and other delicate issues, citing a promise that they made with the Chinese side at the meeting, which lasted nearly one hour.
During his two-day visit to Seoul, Abe is scheduled to hold his first one-on-one talks with Park on Monday.
As for Sino-Japanese relations, senior officials from the two Asian giants have seen ramped up communications in the months since Abe’s two meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first of which took place briefly last November.
Exchanges in nonpolitical areas have also grown.
The annual three-way summit has been suspended since May 2012, mainly because of Japan’s frosty relations with both China and South Korea over territorial disputes and what its two neighbors see as Tokyo’s failure to properly atone for the suffering it caused before and during World War II.