National / Politics

China's presence at trilateral summit likely to limit Japan's say in Korean affairs

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Wednesday’s trilateral summit with China and South Korea will afford Japan something it has craved for weeks: a chance to demonstrate to the world that it remains one of the key global players contributing to the fast-changing diplomatic climate on the Korean Peninsula.

But with China’s stance on North Korea fundamentally different from Japan’s, any agreement the trio will hammer out over the regime will likely be symbolic at best, with Beijing inclined to avoid delving too much into any sensitive detail that could compromise ties with Tokyo, analysts said.

Unlike the historic inter-Korean summit last month and a planned meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the coming weeks, the annual three-way dialogue directly involves Tokyo, coming on the heels of intensifying talk that Japan has been alienated from a whirlwind of recent breakthrough developments on North Korea.

In what is likely to further work to Japan’s advantage, it is Tokyo that will host the event this year, which the three Asian powers have taken turns organizing since its inception in 2008.

“In hosting the trilateral summit, Japan is symbolically announcing that it is still an important player in the game,” June Teufel Dreyer, a political science professor at the University of Miami and an expert on Sino-Japanese relations, said.

Prime Minster Shinzo Abe will host Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, both of whom will be visiting Japan for the first time since inauguration. Abe is expected to engage in bilateral talks with each on the sidelines of the event.

One of Abe’s biggest challenges is to find common ground with Beijing, which is said to be more tolerant of an incremental lifting of sanctions against North Korea than the Japan-South Korea pair, which uphold the position that the U.S.-led “maximum pressure” campaign must be maintained until Pyongyang denuclearizes in a “complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.”

With its ties with Washington and Seoul increasingly in question, Tokyo seems more eager than ever to carve out a new relationship with Beijing, going so far as to initiate the first-ever teleconference with a sitting Chinese president on Friday.

Abe’s historic phone call to Xi ahead of the trilateral summit “does suggest that Japan is trying to open up another avenue for influence to reduce its isolation and to ensure that its interests are better considered,” Corey Wallace, a Japan expert and security policy analyst at the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at Freie Universitat, Berlin, said.

But while Japan appears to place the utmost emphasis on coordinating policy with China on the North Korea front, including denuclearization and the long-standing issue of Japanese abductees kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s, analysts say Beijing’s primary interest may lie elsewhere.

Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kong Xuanyou had reportedly said last week that while no topic will be off-limits, North Korea will not be the “focus” of the trilateral summit.

Noriyuki Kawamura, a professor of Sino-Japanese relations at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, said Beijing, aware of its fundamental difference with Tokyo on North Korea issues, wants to keep any discussion of the regime superficial to minimize the possibility of a clash with Tokyo and Seoul.

Under Xi’s new foreign policy synonymous with the slogan “community of common destiny,” China has placed a growing emphasis on pursuing an improved, “win-win” relationship with its Asian neighbors, Kawamura said.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s unwavering “America First” mindset, exemplified by its recent decision to slap Beijing with massive trade tariffs, has further incentivized Beijing to “make friends with its neighbors so it can rein in a Trump-led America,” Kawamura said, adding North Korea therefore “will not be a No. 1 priority for China” in the upcoming summit with Japan and South Korea.

China, then, may be more intent on discussing bilateral issues with Japan. Among the possible agenda topics is a deal over what is known as a maritime and aerial “communication mechanism” aimed at averting unintended clashes, a Foreign Ministry official said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo and Beijing are currently in the “final stage” of coordinating details on the deal, after reports emerged that the waters and airspace around the uninhabited Senkaku Islands administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing and Taiwan are unlikely to be mentioned in the mechanism.