Commentary / Japan

2020 relations among Japan, China and South Korea

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to take part in the eighth Japan-China-South Korea trilateral summit in Chengdu, China, on Tuesday. He is also set to hold a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in for the first time since September 2018, following talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday evening.

The trilateral summits, which were intended to take place every year, have been more symbolic than significant. Since the first such gathering in Fukuoka in 2008, they have mainly focused on the regional economy, disaster relief or other generic issues, and never politically sensitive matters.

Nothing significant will likely come out of this round, including the bilateral meetings. Tokyo and Beijing will continue to work on a state visit by Xi, while Tokyo and Seoul won’t be able to find a final solution to, or compromise on, the issues of compensation claims deriving from Japan’s colonial rule of Korea. Beijing and Seoul will not stop mistrusting each other. Here’s why.

In the Japan-China relationship, calls are growing in Tokyo against Xi’s planned state visit to Japan, but the two governments seem to be doing business as usual. Beijing is trying to win concessions from Japan with a new joint bilateral document, while Tokyo wants to improve, if not solve, some of the outstanding bilateral issues.

In contrast, the Japan-South Korea ties have rapidly deteriorated since August with Tokyo’s tighter export control and Seoul’s threat to end the General Security of Military Information Agreement, the bilateral accord for sharing defense intelligence. Since South Korea put on hold its decision to terminate the GSOMIA and Japan partially lifted restrictions on one export item, some see signs of hope.

We should not be optimistic, however, about the future. Since Seoul moved the biggest goalpost by deviating from the 1965 basic treaty, a furious Tokyo retaliated against Seoul for the first time since 1945. A proposal to address colonial-era claims issues was recently made by the speaker of the South Korean parliament, but it has been welcomed by neither government.Relations between China and South Korea are no less gloomy. Upon request from China in 2017, South Korea agreed to the “Three Nos,” meaning no additional deployment of U.S.-developed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense systems, no participation in a U.S.-led global missile defense program and no signing of a trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan.

Immediately after Seoul gave in to the pressure from Washington and did not pull the plug on the intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, China dispatched its foreign minister to Seoul and “arrogantly” warned against any move by South Korea to depart from the “Three Nos agreement” that Beijing thought Seoul had agreed to.

Many in Tokyo are anxious to know what will happen at the three bilateral summits in Chengdu. Here is my take on what is most unlikely to happen between the top leaders of Japan, China and South Korea.

First, between Japan and China: I do not expect China to make any strategic concessions such as forgetting about the Senkaku Islands or shelving history-related issues. Tokyo will not give in to Beijing, either. Since Japan-China relations are nothing but a dependent variable of U.S.-China relations, Tokyo realizes that only tactical improvements can be expected.

Although Abe is determined to negotiate a fifth document on Tokyo-Beijing relations, this doesn’t mean he is ready to make compromises. On the contrary, the bilateral groundwork for Xi’s state visit, which cannot fail, provides a golden opportunity for Japan to encourage Beijing to modify its positions. Or just let them cancel the visit if they don’t like it.

When it comes to Japan and South Korea, Tokyo can make no compromise on the principles of the 1965 basic treaty, and Seoul will not rescind or deny its court decisions on compensation for wartime Korean laborers mobilized to work for Japanese businesses. The proposal for a political compromise recently revised by the speaker of the South Korean parliament will neither fly nor be killed.

Despite all its defects, however, the speaker’s proposal might eventually create a political catalyst for a slow but gradual easing of tensions between the two governments. If such a new political environment were to persist, Tokyo and Seoul might be able to prevent a worst-case scenario that neither would wish to see, but Beijing and Pyongyang would.

Finally, let us turn to Beijing and Seoul. South Korea still believes it can enjoy rapprochement with North Korea/China while maintaining its robust alliance with the U.S. Therefore, South Korea can neither depart from the “Three Nos” agreement with China nor abruptly cancel the GSOMIA with Japan.

Unlike Japan-China relations, China-South Korea ties are by no means a dependent variable of the U.S.-China relationship. Seoul will most likely continue trying to keep an optimum balance among the major powers, not because it has superb diplomatic skills but merely because it lacks an unwavering national security strategy.

All in all, what is most likely in 2020 is that, lo and behold, no significant surprises will take place in the relations among Japan, China and South Korea. This is mainly because Seoul is willing to maintain the delicate balance by avoiding tough decisions. The South Koreans want to neither infuriate the Americans or the Chinese, sideline the Russians nor offend the Japanese or North Koreans.

So, what will happen? First, Seoul, while rejecting concessions on its court decisions, may try to continue official “consultations” with Tokyo on outstanding bilateral disputes. If necessary, the government there may even partly modify the parliament speaker’s proposal or make whatever proposals that might help keep up bilateral discussions with Tokyo.

Second, Seoul will continue trying to convince Beijing that the “Three Nos” and the alliance with the U.S. can coexist.

Finally, Xi will make a state visit to Japan next spring amid an air of business as usual, meaning without any progress or setbacks. A symbolic fifth bilateral document may be signed and both sides will call it “very historical.” Life goes on.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

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