National / Politics | G20 Osaka

World leaders' bilateral talks likely to carry more weight than G20 Osaka summit

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

When world leaders gather for a two-day Group of 20 summit in Osaka on Friday, the main meeting is likely to be overshadowed by more critical diplomatic events being held on the sidelines — bilateral talks between key leaders.

In fact, some of the planned one-on-one meetings could have a heavy influence on the fate of a number of key issues, which explains why observers across the globe have been laser-focused on Osaka.

All eyes will be on Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump as the pair discuss the ongoing trade war between the two countries.

But the Xi-Trump meeting isn’t the only one that will be closely watched.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bilateral meeting with Xi is expected to showcase improving Sino-Japanese ties, while his sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to highlight Abe’s failure to settle a long-standing territorial dispute with Moscow by time of the G20 meeting as Tokyo had anticipated.

Here is a preview of key topics that are likely to be taken up at major bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the G20 summit — and the prospects for Japanese diplomacy:

Xi and Trump

The Xi-Trump meeting is set for Saturday, but Tokyo has lowered its expectations on trade issues, a key senior Japanese diplomat familiar with China-related issues said.

“There probably will not be a breakthrough” on trade issues, the official said. “Rather, the focus is whether the two leaders can show signals of continuing talks.”

Trump, who is known to bask in the showiness of meetings with high-profile world leaders regardless of the outcome, has long called on Xi to meet in Osaka to discuss their bilateral trade dispute.

But Beijing “has been very cautious” and was reluctant to arrange a summit meeting with Trump, the official said.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons are also likely to be key agenda item at the meeting, after Xi’s visit to Pyongyang for talks with leader Kim Jong Un on June 20 and 21.

According to the Japanese diplomat, Xi probably visited just ahead of the G20 so that he could obtain key information on the North to deploy as “diplomatic leverage” when he meets Trump and other world leaders in Osaka.

“Trump probably wants to know what exchanges (Kim and Xi) had,” the official said.

Abe and Trump

Abe will be meeting Trump on Friday morning for the third time in just over three months, underlining their strong personal rapport.

A senior official said last week that Trump and Abe will “coordinate” their policies on how to deal with issues to be discussed at the G20 — a remark that shows Tokyo and Washington are on the same page.

But a Tuesday report that Trump had told confidants he was thinking of withdrawing from the Japan-U.S. security treaty, which he considers unfair to the U.S., could throw cold water on the bilateral talks.

Experts have played down the possibility that Trump would actually try to scrap the security treaty, given its strategic importance for the U.S. military.

Still, Trump could use it as leverage in ongoing bilateral trade talks with Japan, experts say, given that Tokyo has heavily relied on the U.S. military to defend the country against threats from China and North Korea.

With Trump heading to South Korea after the G20 summit, North Korea will be another major topic of discussion, the official said.

Regarding the Iran crisis, Abe will need to maintain a diplomatic balance between the U.S., its top ally, and the Middle East, including Iran, on which Japan relies heavily for oil.

In order to maintain good relations with the Middle East, Abe could look to distance himself from U.S. accusations that Tehran staged the recent attack on two tankers in the Persian Gulf.

Japan has stopped crude oil imports from Iran under U.S.-led economic sanctions against the country, but Japan is still heavily reliant on oil from the Middle East in general. In 2013, about 80 percent of imported crude oil was transported through the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran once threatened to block if it is prevented from using it.

On Monday, Trump tweeted that Japan and other countries should do more to protect their own tankers traveling through the strait, saying the U.S. military has been deployed there to defend the interests of those countries.

If Trump were to ask Abe to further cooperate with the U.S. on Iran, it would force the prime minister into making a difficult decision, one that could affect Japan’s long-term Middle East strategy.

Abe and Putin

Abe had originally hoped to reach a breakthrough agreement with Putin on the decades-old territorial dispute over four Russia-controlled islands off Hokkaido when they meet on the G20 sidelines, according to Japanese government sources.

But with no prospect of a deal, Saturday’s meeting is likely to underline the fact that Abe’s plan — which included securing the return of at least the smaller two of the four islands — has failed.

One of the main reasons for this failure was the unwillingness on both sides to compromise on the islands’ sovereignty.

Tokyo has for years claimed the Soviet Union, and subsequently Russia, has “illegally” occupied the islands, which are called the Northern Territories in Japan and Southern Kurils in Russia.

Moscow, however, has maintained a tough stance, insisting Tokyo must first recognize that Russia legitimately won sovereignty over the four islands as a result of World War II — something Japanese politicians have said is totally unacceptable.

In addition, Putin’s approval rate in Russian media polls has seen a precipitous decline in the past year, making it even more difficult for him politically to dole out major concessions on the territorial issue.

In an interview aired Saturday by Russian state-run television, Putin emphasized that Moscow would continue promoting the development of the islands.

Abe and Xi

The meeting between the leaders of the two Asian powerhouses, which takes place on Thursday, is expected to lay the groundwork for Xi’s first state visit to Japan — a trip Tokyo has long pushed for.

“Xi is coming to Japan for the sake of the G20 meeting, so this is not a full-fledged visit to Japan. This bilateral meeting is an opportunity to prepare for a next, full-on visit” by the Chinese leader, the first senior Foreign Ministry official said.

The Chinese side, meanwhile, appears willing to arrange Xi’s visit to Japan.

On June 21, Kong Xuanyou, China’s new ambassador to Japan, told a news conference in Tokyo that he hopes Xi’s visit “will be during a good season, like the time when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.”

If realized, Xi’s visit would be the first state visit by a Chinese president since May 2008, when Hu Jintao came to Tokyo to meet then-Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

Abe and Moon

Ties between Tokyo and Seoul are currently at a point where setting up a bilateral meeting on the G20 sidelines would only make matters worse.

Japanese officials have suggested that Abe may chat with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, but a formal meeting is unlikely to be set unless there are any developments over the wartime labor issue involving Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

“If ever a bilateral talk is held, it should be arranged so that it would improve the Japan-South Korea relationship,” the senior Foreign Ministry official said.

“But now, to our regret, there is no prospect of that,” the official said, adding that any formal meeting could further highlight the two neighbor’s deteriorated diplomatic ties.

Relations have been highly strained over recent wartime labor cases. South Korea has claimed numerous Koreans were brought to Japan against their will to work before and during the war. But Tokyo argues many workers came on a voluntary basis and that the two countries have already settled the compensation issue under a 1965 pact attached to a Tokyo-Seoul treaty that normalized the post-colonial bilateral relationship.

Under the 1965 deal, Tokyo extended huge economic assistance to Seoul, which in return agreed to pay any compensation for wartime laborers by using some of those funds.

The issue has been a major diplomatic issue since last year, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to pay compensation to forced laborers. Tokyo has criticized Seoul for failing to take any actions to protect those companies.

As a result, Tokyo has invoked an article of the 1965 pact and requested that an arbitration committee, which would be appointed entirely by third-party countries, be set up.

Seoul has yet to respond, having previously failed to reply to a request to form a different kind of arbitration panel, further stiffening Tokyo’s attitude and leaving diplomatic talks deadlocked.

This is part of a series featuring key topics that will be discussed during the Group of 20 summit to be held in Osaka from Friday.

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