China, Japan, South Korea leaders to revive trilateral summit | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 29.10.2015
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China, Japan, South Korea leaders to revive trilateral summit

South Korea will host this Sunday the first summit in years with China and Japan, and the first talks between President Park and Japanese PM Abe since they took office. DW looks at the issues topping the agenda.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe have accepted invitations to three-way talks in Seoul over the weekend with South Korean President Park Geun-hye. After a three-and-a-half-year hiatus, the symbolically important summit will resume what were previously annual talks between East Asia's three main powers.

Premier Li will visit the neighboring country from October 31 to November 2 and meet with President Park before attending the trilateral talks which are scheduled for Sunday, November 1. A day later, Abe and Park are expected to engage in their first ever formal bilateral talks in a bid to defuse tensions over the countries' wartime past, as they struggle to settle disputes related to Japan's colonial rule of Korea in the early 20th century.

Easing tensions?

"The most important thing is that this meeting is happening at all," said Andrew Small, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, adding that the absence of a regular summit had become a symbol of tensions in Northeast Asia.

"South Korean-China relations have been very good under President Park, but security tensions between China and Japan, and political tensions between Japan and South Korea, have been acute in recent years. The resumption of these trilateral meetings is hence a reflection of the fact that all three sides are now making efforts to at least mitigate them," Small told DW.

Asien trilaterale Zusammenarbeit Japan China und Südkorea

The last trilateral talks between China, Japan and South Korea were held three and a half years ago in Beijing

Topping the agenda will be discussions on developing a joint approach towards the North Korean nuclear issue, exchanging opinions about the wartime past, and, most importantly, bolstering economic ties.

"China and Japan - the world's second and third largest economies, respectively - are facing difficult economic conditions at present, placing a premium on any measures that can give impetus to trade and investment flows," said Small. Added to this is the consideration that China will be represented by Premier Li whose responsibilities are more narrowly economic than those of the Chinese President.

Free trade talks

In fact, many believe the most important factor in facilitating the recent rapprochement has been China's policy shift towards Japan as Beijing looks for new ways to deal with an economic slowdown.

"There seems to have been the recognition that the political tensions with Japan were having a negative impact on trade and investment, and that this was adding to China's economic headwinds," James D. Brown, a Japan expert at Temple University's campus in Tokyo, told DW.

Transpazifische Partnerschaft Freihandelsabkommen TTP

While Japan is a member of the TPP trade deal, China and South Korea are currently not involved in it

This is exacerbated by concerns about the recent conclusion of talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a major trade agreement between 12 regional economies, including Japan and the United States. Given that neither China nor South Korea is currently involved in the TPP, these countries are increasingly worried that they may be excluded from a significant part of regional trade, said Brown.

This is why plans to establish a free trade zone are likely to feature high on the trilateral summit's agenda, especially as economy and trade ministers from the three sides will meet ahead of the summit, with another round of formal negotiations scheduled in December.

It is also possible that progress will be made on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) - a proposed trade pact involving all three countries plus 13 other Asian economies.

Analysts, however, point out that no such deal is likely to be concluded in the coming days given that free trade agreements are complicated and require months of negotiation. Nonetheless, Japan expert Brown argues that it would be a significant achievement, if the three governments manage to agree on accelerating trade talks.

"Even failing any concrete breakthrough on economic issues, the summit will still count as a success if it can manage to improve the atmosphere between Japan and both China and South Korea," added Brown.

Nordkorea Rakete Militärparade ARCHIVBILD 2010

The three countries - Japan, China and South Korea - have a keen interest in containing Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions

Dealing with nuclear threats

Another issue likely to feature prominently is North Korea, as all three countries have a keen interest in containing Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. Analyst Small explains that since the East Asian powers last met, they have grown more closely aligned in their thinking on North Korea, as relations between Pyongyang and Beijing have notably worsened under Kim Jong Un.

"This makes talks and a joint statement on the subject of North Korean denuclearization easier than back in 2011 or 2012," said the expert.

In the meantime, there are growing indications that Pyongyang is seeking to modernize its nuclear weapons program.

An August report by analysts from the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said the communist regime had begun to refurbish a major mill located near Pyongsan - a county in the southern part of the country - that turns uranium ore into yellowcake.

This suggests that the communist country "intends to mine and mill a significant amount of uranium that could serve as fuel for expanding its nuclear weapons stockpile," said arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis. In April, Joel Wit, the founder of US think tank 38 North, told DW North Korea was on the verge of rapidly increasing its nuclear weapons stockpile to 20, 50 or 100 bombs within five years.

The 'comfort women' issue

The issue of "comfort women" is also likely to feature in the Korean-Japanese summit, considered highly significant as - unlike Chinese and Japanese leaders - President Park and Prime Minister Abe have yet to have a one-on-one meeting.

The reason for this is Seoul's insistence that the Japanese leader provide a more sincere apology on the issue of "comfort women," a term referring to mostly Korean women who were coerced into providing sexual services to the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

"This is an extremely sensitive topic within Korea and, until just a few days ago, it remained possible that disagreements related to this issue would actually prevent the meeting from taking place," said Japan expert Brown.

In a televised address on the eve of the 70th anniversary of Japan's unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945, Abe expressed "utmost grief" over the loss of life in the global conflict and acknowledged his country's military had inflicted "immeasurable damage and suffering" on innocent people. But the statement failed to satisfy leaders in Beijing and Seoul who called on Tokyo to take "sincere action" over the history issue.

Given the differing views, analysts believe that - now that it seems likely that the bilateral summit will indeed go ahead - the Abe-Park meeting will likely focus on areas in which they are able to find common ground - such as economic issues or the North Korean threat - rather than on divisive issues.

"Nationalism continues to play a major role in diplomatic relations in China, Korea, and Japan. So the question of historical grievances will remain and will prove very difficult to move forward on," said Shihoko Goto, senior Northeast Asia associate at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.

In this context, she said, body language as much as words from any communiqué will be closely monitored.

Südkorea Anti-Japan Proteste in Seoul

The issue of 'comfort women' is extremely sensitive, particularly in South Korea

Tangible results 'unlikely'

Despite the importance of the talks, many analysts don't expect any significant tangible results, arguing that the summit will be seen as successful enough if it simply leads to more meetings. "Setting a lower bar for success and importance in terms of deliverables would be best," said Katharine Moon, Chair of Korea Studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

"Carrying through on the trilateral and the bilateral meetings without confrontations or outright resistance on any issue would be an achievement itself," Moon told DW, adding that the point should be on making this set of meetings the "restart" button so that trilateral relations can begin to heal and move gradually toward regular cooperation.

"To me, the goal should be on making the upcoming meetings catalysts for follow-up working-level meetings on specific issues over the long-term," Moon added.