SEOUL – The recently sealed Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact, Washington’s urging for better relations with Tokyo and a thaw in ties between Japan and China appear to be why South Korea’s leader decided to meet with her Japanese counterpart at last.
President Park Geun-hye held her first formal talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday.
Park took office in February 2013 but rejected Abe’s calls for a meeting, demanding that Japan first take steps to address the issue of Korean women and girls forced into Imperial Japanese military brothels.
Meanwhile, China held out on a summit unless Japan recognize the existence of a territorial dispute over a group of islets in the East China Sea administered by Japan that are also claimed by Beijing and Taiwan.
But analysts say Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two meetings with Abe in November last year and April this year without preconditions and Abe’s success in dispelling U.S. concerns about historical revisionism during his visit to Washington in late April prodded Park to alter her approach toward Japan.
Strained political ties between Tokyo and Seoul have affected otherwise sound economic ties. South Korean figures show Japanese investment in the country fell to $2.49 billion in 2014 from $4.55 billion in 2012 and that the number of Japanese visitors dropped to 2.28 million in 2014 from 3.52 million in 2012.
On May 4, Park spoke for the first time about a “two-track” policy toward Japan that separates history from other issues such as security and economic cooperation.
In a recent survey, two thirds of South Korean experts on security and foreign affairs said Seoul should advance security cooperation with Japan without linking it to the so-called “comfort women” issue and a dispute over a pair of islets in the Sea of Japan held by Seoul but claimed by Tokyo.
Eighty-eight percent of 113 respondents said South Korea needs to improve relations with Japan, according to the survey conducted in September and October by the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, a body under South Korea’s Foreign Ministry.
Similarly, the United States has urged Japan and South Korea, its main allies in East Asia, to put history aside and improve ties.
“We will continue to rely on our two close allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan, to serve as examples for the region — to model their enduring commitment to democracy and free markets, peace and stability,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Oct. 7 in an address at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Seoul.
In the wake of a deal struck in early October by the 12 TPP nations to create a Pacific Rim free trade area, Park and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang — whose countries are not in the TPP — agreed with Abe on Sunday in Seoul to speed up negotiations on a three-way free trade agreement.
“As a countermeasure against the TPP, China is likely to take the lead in accelerating talks for an FTA involving Japan, China and South Korea,” said Kiyoyuki Seguchi, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, a Tokyo-based think tank.
“The trilateral FTA would also lead to improved relations between Tokyo and Seoul,” Seguchi said. “In this sense, the agreement on the TPP has a significant meaning.”
Within South Korea, too, there have been growing calls for the nation to join the TPP, as staying outside the bloc could undermine the nation’s competitiveness against Japan. The two neighbors compete in many industries.
During Monday’s talks with Abe, Park indicated South Korea willingness to join the TPP and her hope for Japan’s cooperation in this regard, South Korean officials said.
Each of the 12 members must agree to launch negotiations with South Korea to fix terms for its entry, and gaining approval from the United States and Japan is particularly important, given that together they represent some 40 percent of the world economy.
Park conveyed South Korea’s desire for TPP membership when she met with U.S. President Barack Obama on Oct. 16 in Washington.
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