The meeting last Wednesday between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Tokyo was the first trilateral summit of the three Northeast Asian powers in 2½ years. It was also the first visit to Japan by a South Korean president in more than six years and the first by a top Chinese leader in about seven years. The three countries took turns hosting the trilateral summit every year between 2008 and 2012, but the meeting has since been held only sporadically as wartime history-related issues and territorial rows marred relations between Japan and the other two countries.
The scarcity of top-level exchanges speaks volumes about the state of Japan’s diplomatic ties with its regional neighbors. During the talks, Abe, Li and Moon agreed to coordinate their efforts toward the denuclearization of North Korea, cooperate in infrastructure building in Asia and accelerate talks for a trilateral free trade agreement. The issuance of a joint declaration by the three leaders, however, was delayed late into the night due to differences over the wording of its text concerning the North Korean and history-related issues.
The meeting exposed the gap between Japan, which calls for achieving North Korea’s denuclearization over the short term by maintaining pressure and sanctions on Pyongyang, and China and South Korea, which favor a more gradual process through dialogue with the North. The call that Abe made in the talks for scrapping all of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs in a “complete, verifiable and irreversible” manner did not make it in the joint declaration.
It was still significant that the three leaders gathered in Tokyo after a hiatus of more than two years in the trilateral dialogue. One of the key factors that prompted the first trilateral summit since November 2015 was no doubt the recent rapid developments over North Korea, including the inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom in late April and a historic summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, now slated to be held June 12 in Singapore. Kim has twice visited China for talks with President Xi Jinping.
The three countries may differ in their approaches to denuclearizing North Korea. But they do need to cooperate, along with the United States, to make sure that the ongoing process will lead to stability on the Korean Peninsula. Tokyo cannot afford a further vacuum in dialogue with either Beijing or Seoul.
There were positive developments in Abe’s talks with Li, who formally agreed to put in place in June a maritime and aerial communication mechanism between the two countries’ defense authorities to avoid unintended clashes between the Self-Defense Forces and the Chinese military in and above nearby waters. Japan and China have been in talks over the mechanism for more than a decade since Abe, during his first stint as prime minister, concurred with then-Premier Wen Jiabao in 2007 on the need to build such a system.
Although the two governments reached a basic agreement in 2012 on the framework of the mechanism, such as installation of a hotline, the talks were later suspended as the dispute deepened over the Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China. Even after negotiations resumed in 2015, the two governments continued to differ over whether the area around the Senkakus would be covered by the mechanism — Tokyo saying no and Beijing insisting yes because otherwise that would mean China accepting Japan’s sovereignty over the islets.
The two governments eventually agreed to launch the communication mechanism without making it clear whether the area around the Senkakus would be covered. It is a positive sign that they chose to move the process forward by setting aside that question, which would likely not be resolved anytime soon.
Abe and Li also agreed to set up a public-private sector council to promote bilateral cooperation in infrastructure development in Asia. Efforts for improving the strained Japan-China relationship gained momentum after Abe last year announced his qualified support of Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” cross-continental infrastructure development initiative and called out to Xi for mutual visits of the two countries’ top leaders. Abe and Li concurred on a visit by Abe to China before the end of this year, which Tokyo hopes will be followed by a Xi visit to Japan.
In a joint news conference, Li said his visit this time put Japan-China relations back “on a normal path.” That does not mean differences between Tokyo and Beijing have been resolved, including the dispute over the Senkakus. But the talks last week should mark an important step in what Abe hailed as efforts for a full-scale improvement in bilateral ties to bring the Japan-China relations to a new phase.