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Asia

South Korea-Japan-China talks give way to optimism

Following the first trilateral meet between their leaders in over three years, the three sides indicate that historical and sovereignty issues will be on the backburner for a while for the sake of common economic good.

The first three-way meeting between the leaders of South Korea, Japan and China in more than three years ended in smiles and handshakes on Monday, November 2.

After the talks, there is a genuine sense - perhaps cautious optimism is the appropriate term - that these three economic behemoths may be willing to shelve some of the issues that have divided them for so long in order to solve some of the immediate problems that they face.

To be sure, China and South Korea are not going to suddenly step back and say that the issues of shared history and the ongoing debate over territories are done and dusted.

But Beijing and Seoul do appear to be keen to shift the focus onto measures that will help the slightly anemic economies of all three nations right now.

With the caveats of history and territory removed, the "forward-looking ties" - which all three leaders have professed they are striving for - might just be achievable.

Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president, hosted the two days of meetings in Seoul, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arriving from Tokyo and Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, representing Beijing.

Südkorea Treffen Shinzo Abe und Park Geun-hye Bilateraler Gipfel

This was the first one-on-one summit between South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe

Major breakthrough

After such a long time, and bearing in mind some of the accusations, counter-claims and allegations that have been bandied about by all sides in recent years, analysts suggest it was a major breakthrough simply to have the three leaders sitting down to talks.

"I would rate this as something of a breakthrough and the media reaction here in Seoul has been generally positive as well," Rah Jong-yil, South Korea's former ambassador to London and Tokyo, told DW.

"There are obviously many differences and difficulties that still exist between the three nations, but it is clear that the main motivation for a successful outcome of the summit has been the economies of all three nations," he said.

"None of their economies are in great shape at the moment and the prospects for the immediate future are not wonderful either," he added. "So the leaders are trying to put the difficult problems to one side in order to be able to help each other in the area of economics."

Experts say South Korea was so keen for the summit to be a success that Seoul dropped its insistence that before talks could be held, Japan needed to demonstrate progress in resolving the issue of "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery for the forces of Imperial Japan during the early decades of the last century.

Japanese PM Abe's position had been that the talks should not have any preconditions attached and that position held sway. The Japanese leader did, however, promise his host that Tokyo would "accelerate talks [with South Korea] to reach an agreement as soon as possible."

Talking about the past

Agreeing to continue talking about the past enables all three sides to focus attention on more pressing issues, believes Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.

"All Abe has to do is to stay away from Yasukuni Shrine [the controversial shrine in Tokyo that honors Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals] and repeat that his government is willing to keep talking about historical issues," he said.

"Tokyo's biggest area of contention with China is the sovereignty of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which Japan controls, and while tensions there may remain relatively high, they can be kept on the civilian level by both Tokyo and Beijing and the possibility of the problem escalating is lessened," Okumura underlined.

The expert also believes that economy is the key issue that needs to be addressed.

The proposed three-way free-trade agreement may not be achievable, primarily as the three nations have quite divergent trade priorities at the moment, but it is clear that Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing all recognize that they need to enhance the present trade links that already bind them so closely together if they are each to overcome the difficulties that they face.

Restarting investment

For China, Okumura said, the priority is to reduce tensions with Japan to the point at which Japanese investment starts to flow back into the country. Last year, Japanese investment into China contracted more than 30 percent.

Watch video 01:38

Solution to "comfort women" dispute ahead?

Chinese media, however, was not able to let the trilateral meeting pass without taking at least a couple of digs at its near-neighbor, with Meng Xiaoxu, an associate professor at the China University of International Relations, blaming Abe for the over three-year gap in holding the talks.

In an editorial in the Global Times, Meng stated, "It's a pity that Abe has not thoroughly conducted introspection over the suspension of the trilateral talks and he still lacks sincerity when dealing with historical issues."

The tone that state-run Chinese media adopts as the three countries take baby-steps towards rebuilding their working relationships will be worth watching.

It will hint at how far and how fast Beijing is willing to move forward in its new ties with Tokyo.

Analysts say there are sure to be more hiccups in the months and years ahead for the three nations, but the very fact that the leaders of South Korea, Japan and China are smiling and shaking hands has to be positive.

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