The United States had sounded out Japan shortly after their leaders met in mid-April about another U.S. visit by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga for a three-way meeting also involving their South Korean counterpart, sources familiar with Japan-U.S. relations said Thursday.
But the plan was dropped over South Korean concerns that a meeting among Suga, U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in would steal the limelight from a summit between Biden and Moon if held on the same occasion, the sources said.
The U.S.-South Korea summit was held at the White House on May 21, five weeks after Suga met with Biden as the first foreign leader to be invited there for talks since the president took office in January.
The Biden administration has placed importance on alliance-centered diplomacy. The plan apparently came out of a desire on Washington’s part to provide an opportunity for its key Asian allies to patch up their frayed ties and to play up a tripartite partnership on such issues as Taiwan in a bid to ring-fence China with its allies and like-minded countries.
For its part, Tokyo was ready to accept the U.S. overtures in principle, but some within the government took a cautious stance toward another visit in such a short interval, citing worsening public opinion against the Suga government over a set of measures in place to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control, according to the sources.
Had the U.S.-Japan-South Korea summit been held, a Suga-Moon summit might also have taken place then. But some within the Japanese government had been negative toward the two leaders meeting before Seoul was ready to present proposals acceptable to Tokyo over a string of issues that have raised tensions between the two neighbors.
The United States, Japan and South Korea are working to arrange a three-way meeting on the sidelines of an in-person gathering of leaders from the Group of Seven industrialized nations slated for June 11 to June 13 in Cornwall, England. The arrangements are also being led by the United States, according to the sources.
Some observers say that even if Suga and Moon meet on the occasion, it may not go beyond a chat.
A joint statement issued after last month’s Biden-Moon meeting said the two leaders noted that trilateral cooperation involving Japan is of “fundamental importance” in addressing North Korea and bolstering the rules-based order.
Japan-South Korea relations have sunk to their lowest point in decades following South Korean Supreme Court rulings in 2018 that ordered Japanese companies to compensate plaintiffs who were laborers during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Also souring ties is the issue of Koreans forced or coerced to work as “comfort women” in Japan’s wartime military brothels. Japan has protested a recent South Korean court ruling ordering the Japanese government to pay damages to former comfort women.
In a deal reached in December 2015, Japan and South Korea agreed to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the comfort women issue. As vice president under then President Barack Obama, Biden played a part in the lead up to the agreement, mediating between then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun Hye.
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