TOKYO: The leaders of Japan, China and South Korea pledged on Sunday to resume their annual trilateral summit talks after a three-and-half year hiatus.
The gesture is a testament to thawing diplomatic ties between the three East Asian powerhouses and while this breakthrough is being heralded as a monumental step forward for the region, observers believe that plenty of work lies ahead before relations will be fully normalized.
Observers said the summit itself would not result in any particular substantive gains for the three parties, but would serve as a new benchmark for diplomacy in the region with an atmosphere leading to a more conducive backdrop for enhancing economic and trade ties, while tackling some of the thorny issues in a more pragmatic way.
“The three leaders have already announced that they will resume their annual trilateral summits, based on what they described as a ‘forward-looking’ ethos, with Japan to host the resumed talks next year and this alone shows that all countries involved are for the first time in more than three years committed to tackling the issues that have seen diplomatic ties sink to their lowest in years,” Pacific affairs research analyst Laurent Sinclair said.
“They have also touched on issues of trade agreements between the three countries, which shows the interdependence these countries have and should build upon between each other as the three-way free trade agreement being floated could encompass more than 20 percent of the world economy, and be a real shot-in-the-arm for the region as a whole,” said Sinclair, adding that a lot of work still remained to be done.
“The Japanese, Chinese and South Korean economies influence not only the Asian economy as a whole but also the global economy. Their combined gross domestic product accounts for 21 percent of the world’s overall GDP, just below that of the United States and more than six times larger than the combined share of the 10 ASEAN countries,” Akihiko Tanaka, a University of Tokyo professor specializing in international politics, wrote in a recent editorial.
“Should China and South Korea join the TPP agreement, the liberalization of the world economy will certainly gather speed. In this regard, Japan should expedite ongoing efforts to strike a deal on a trilateral free-trade agreement with China and South Korea.”
Sinclair added that Sunday’s meeting and those that would continue on Monday were more of a showcase to demonstrate to the world that despite ongoing tensions in the region, its leaders were prepared to discuss the issues at the highest possible levels, rather than to continue to keep the doors to diplomacy closed.
The security dynamic in the Asia-Pacific region is undergoing a dynamic shift, with Japan’s sudden remilitarization, alongside the US pivot to the region.
It is now a perfect moment for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to let South Korean President Park Geun Hye and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang know his true intentions, as unilateral moves to bolster Japan’s military physically and legislatively by Abe have led to a great deal of anxiety and apprehension in the region, political watchers noted.
“Undoubtedly China and South Korea, both countries who suffered immeasurably at the hand of Japan’s Imperial Army during WWII, will naturally be concerned that Japan has once again forged ahead with a new military paradigm that largely lifts the restrictions that the Constitution should have ensured,” Koichi Ishikawa, a political commentator and senior research fellow, said.
If Japan’s plans, as Abe has consistently attested, are for it to be a more proactive supporter of peace in the world and harbors no ill-intent to its neighbors, then these talks should be the beginning of many more to come on the subject, he believed
“In some respects this summit and those henceforth will be something of a test for Abe, as he has styled himself to be a astute politician, but also known for his diplomatic equivocations even as regards his own electorate, so his words and actions will now be scrutinized rather severely,” Ishikawa said.
“But the hope is that such scrutiny will result in honesty and candor going forward, and then some of the issues that have lingered for years can also then be addressed candidly and with a sense of honesty and will to move forward.”
He was talking about the baggage that still remains between the three countries, specifically Japan not fully facing up to some of its wartime atrocities, including its abuses of Chinese and Korean “comfort women” and a territorial dispute over China’s Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea that saw ties between Tokyo and Beijing sink to an all-time low, and an ongoing dispute with South Korea over islands in the Sea of Japan that remains unresolved.
But as Hideshi Takesada, a professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo, pointed out, the summit alone is the first and biggest step forward and thereafter dialogue on specific sticking points can and should be continued.
“The summit is a big step forward for both countries. The South Korean side has pinned its hopes on a Japanese compromise over history and the comfort women issue, but it is unlikely to be resolved during the summit,” Takesada said. “At best, the two sides would agree to continue their dialogue over the issue.”
Ishikawa concurred that the trilateral summit signaled a new area of enhanced dialogue for the major players in the region and had seen a diplomatic deadlock broken in Abe’s first talks with South Korea’s Park and a gradual, yet continued thawing of ties with China, as Abe held a one-on-one meeting with Premier Li.
Abe met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on two occasions since November last year.
Many observers say that looking ahead, dialogue from the top levels down needs to be increased in frequency and depth and a focus kept on the trilateral nature of talks as being of significant importance as well as bilateral communication between country and country.
“In theory, great strides can be made forward in the region, with the resumption of the six party talks, for example, which are of vital importance for the security of the region, as well as on talks involving enhanced economic partnership and cooperation in the region,” Sinclair said.
“Such talks can lead to the addressing of environmental issues and see the countries’ people-to-people exchanges boosted too, which will help dissipate the negative sentiments some people hold toward the other countries’ peoples,” he said.
“All in all, the state of the region is far better today than it was yesterday, owing to the summit. So proving the power of dialogue,” Sinclair concluded.