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Asia

What do the recent Japan, China, South Korea talks mean?

In a bid to ease tensions, the foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea held talks after a three-year break. But will this be enough to restore an annual trilateral summit? DW speaks to expert James Brown.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se hosted the meeting with his Japanese and Chinese counterparts Fumio Kishida and Wang Yi on Saturday, March 21 in Seoul. The

trilateral talks

, which came just days after Japan and China held their first high-level security talks in four years, are believed to have focused on North Korea, regional banks and ways to ease regional tensions, with the ministers agreeing to restore a "trilateral summit" among their leaders "at the earliest convenient time."

"The three foreign ministers, based on the spirit of looking squarely at history and moving forward to the future, have agreed to make joint efforts to properly resolve related issues, improve bilateral ties and strengthen trilateral cooperation," Yun Byung-se said. Relations between the major Asian powers have deteriorated in recent years due to territorial disputes and issues dating back to World War II.

James D. Brown, a Japan expert at Temple University's campus in Tokyo, says in a DW interview that while the combination of the security talks between China and Japan and the meeting of the foreign ministers does represent a marked improvement in relations between China and Japan, the restoration of trilateral summit talks is by no means guaranteed.

James D. Brown Temple University Japan Campus

James Brown

DW: How important was this meeting and what aspects did it cover?

James D. Brown: Firstly, this is certainly a highly important development since it is the first time the foreign ministers of China, South Korea and Japan have met in three years. In 2007 the three countries agreed to regular meetings of their top diplomats, but these were suspended following the deterioration of relations in 2012. The hope is therefore that the March 21 meeting heralds a return to more constructive relations.

In terms of what was discussed, Yun Byung-se, the South Korean foreign minister and the meeting's host, stated that the intention was to establish “groundwork for trust-building and common prosperity.” More concretely, it seems that considerable attention was given to the issue of North Korea and how best to block the advance of its nuclear capabilities.

This was a wise choice of subject for this initial meeting since the North Korean security threat is something which unites the parties. Seoul and Tokyo have long been deeply concerned by the danger posed by the North Korean regime and, in recent times, Beijing's relations with its long-time ally have also cooled significantly.

A somewhat more controversial discussion topic was the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). This Chinese-backed institution is viewed with suspicion by the United States since it is seen as part of an attempt by Beijing to create a rival set of international institutions to those favored by Washington. Despite the US's warnings, European states, including the UK, France, and Germany, have expressed interest in joining the AIIB, and South Korea, despite its close security relationship with Washington, is set to follow suit. Japan, by contrast, looks certain to remain opposed to the new institution, not least because of its traditional dominance of the Asian Development Bank.

Nonetheless, at the Seoul meeting, the Chinese foreign minister left the door open to Japanese membership of the AIIB, saying, “It's an Asian infrastructure investment bank, and Japan is an important part of Asia. We can cooperate together.”

The final key topic of conversation appears to have been the possibility of reviving trilateral summits between the three countries' leaders. These annual summits were instituted in 2008 but, as with the foreign ministers' meetings, were put on hold after May 2012. It would therefore be a major breakthrough if a formal summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could be held.

Saturday's meeting came just days after China and Japan held their first high-level security talks in four years. What does the latest meeting signal?

Yasukuni Schrein Japan / Yasukuni-Schrein Shinzo Abe

Japanese Premier Abe's visits to the Yakusuni Shrine have been controversial from the start

The combination of the security talks and the meeting of the foreign ministers does indeed represent a marked improvement in relations between China and Japan. Above all, this appears to be a sign of a softening in Beijing's position. Previously, the Chinese leadership seemed determined not to deal with the current Japanese government, but this no longer seems to be the case.

Perhaps driven by an eagerness to revive economic ties, the Chinese authorities have demonstrated a willingness to engage with the Japanese leadership. This new approach was clearly demonstrated by the brief and deeply awkward meeting in Beijing between President Xi and Prime Minister Abe in November 2014. This week's meetings provide hope that the cracks in the ice created by that encounter could develop into a more general thaw.

What major issues are still affecting ties between these countries?

In terms of major problems, there are firstly the territorial disputes. Specifically, both Japan and China claim the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, while Korea and Japan contest sovereignty over Dokdo/Takeshima.

The second main area of tension is

historical memory of Japanese imperialism in Korea and China

. According to Seoul and Beijing, Japanese leaders have still not adequately repented for the crimes committed by Imperial Japan and must do more to reflect honestly upon their country's troubled history.

In relation to these historical issues, Prime Minister Abe is regarded as especially problematic since he has appeared to question whether Imperial Japan's actions can really be said to have been “aggressive.” He has also considered revising an apology issued by a previous Japanese government to “comfort women,” the predominantly Korean and Chinese women who were coerced into serving in Japanese military brothels.

Senkaku Inseln Japan

Disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands

Prime Minister Abe's visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honours the memory of Japan's war dead, including 14 Class-A war criminals, is also seen as an insult to the victims of Japan's wartime atrocities.

In comparison to their relations with Japan, China and South Korea have good bilateral ties, though they are not entirely without problems. Most recently, there has been the issue of the possible deployment in South Korea of the US's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Although the deployment of this anti-ballistic missile defense system is said to be directed against the threat of a missile attack from North Korea, China regards the system as a potential danger to its own military capabilities.

What have these countries been doing over the past couple of months to de-escalate tensions?

The de-escalation owes much to a change in China's position. After 2010 Beijing took an increasingly assertive stance towards the territorial dispute with Japan. This was further intensified in 2012 following Tokyo's nationalization of three of the disputed islands.

After this point, China actively sought to challenge Japan's administration of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands by regularly sending ships into the surrounding waters. In November 2013 China also declared an Air Defense Identification Zone that includes the islands. This prompted the United States to respond by flying two B-52 bombers through the area, thereby reminding China of its commitment to Japan's security.

With tensions having reached such unprecedented levels in 2012-13, it appears that Beijing took the decision to take a more measured approach towards the end of 2014. It is this shift in Chinese policy that made the trilateral foreign ministers' meeting possible.

Is it likely that this meeting will lead to a new trilateral summit later this year?

There will be great hopes that the foreign ministers' meeting will be followed by a summit of the countries' leaders later this year. This is dependent, however, on no further tensions arising in the coming months. This is by no means guaranteed, especially since 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, when issues of historical memory are especially prominent.

Protest ehemaliger Trostfrauen Japans in Südkorea

'Comfort women' protesting in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, April 2013

Above all, much will depend on the speech that Prime Minister Abe intends to give in August to mark the anniversary of Japan's surrender. If sufficiently conciliatory, it is conceivable that this speech could open the way to a leaders' summit later in the year. The probability, however, is that Abe's speech will offer a less fulsome apology than that provided by Prime Minister Murayama on the 50th anniversary of the war's end.

This is likely to be viewed by China and Korea as an attempt to evade responsibility for Japan's crimes and may therefore set back the prospects of a trilateral leaders' summit.

What major challenges lie ahead for trilateral relations in the coming months?

There are a number of forthcoming challenges in trilateral relations but, due to the 70th anniversary, 2015 will be defined by historical issues. In addition to Prime Minister Abe's speech in August, there are also the major commemorative events that China has planned for September. If these focus on demonstrating China's military prowess and on demonizing Japan for its past ills, they could lead to a new deterioration in relations.

There is a small chance, however, that this year's anniversary events could serve to build upon the recent improvement in trilateral relations. In particular, Russia has invited 68 world leaders, including those of China, South Korea, and Japan, to attend Victory Day in Moscow on 9 May. President Xi has already confirmed his attendance and if the Japanese and South Korean leaders were to do likewise, there would be the opportunity for an informal meeting without the need to commit to a formal trilateral summit.

Due to the current tensions over Ukraine, Prime Minister Abe will be under pressure from the United States not to attend. Nonetheless, if the Japanese leader wishes to build upon the progress made this week, it would make sense for him to go to Moscow in May.

James Brown is Assistant Professor in Political Science at Temple University, Japan Campus.