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We have just seen the re-election of Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping, leaders of Asia’s two biggest economies. Earlier this year Moon Jae-in won South Korea’s snap elections, ending a decade of conservative power. Abe and Xi are the most powerful leaders of

China, Japan, South Korea. Prospects for Détente?

By Mascha Peters

31 October 2017

We have just seen the re-election of Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping, leaders of Asia’s two biggest economies. Earlier this year Moon Jae-in won South Korea’s snap elections, ending a decade of conservative power. Abe and Xi are the most powerful leaders of their countries in decades while Moon also enjoys no real domestic challenger. Given the fact that these three leaders will now enjoy some years of stability what does this mean for trilateral relations? Could Xi, Abe and Moon overcome the historical shadows that bedevil their relations and move their three countries down the path of reconciliation?

Historically interwoven and inextricably interlinked, relations between South Korea, China and Japan have never been free from frictions, even long before WWII. Today a variety of issues continues to impede trust building, ranging from the so-called comfort women dispute between South Korea/Japan, China/Japan, and the highly controversial visits of Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni shrine to territorial conflicts over the islands of Diaoyu-Senkaku and Dokdo-Takeshima. There is slightly less historical dead weight between China and Korea yet relations were strained as well, due to Seoul’s approval of the US THAAD anti-missile system following rising provocations from North Korea. After Seoul stated it had no intention of joining any formal US-Japan-ROK alliance, Beijing agreed to normalise relations with South Korea. 

It is nearly two years since the last trilateral summit took place in Seoul. Park Geun-hye, Shinzo Abe and Li Keqiang then met for the first time after a three-year hiatus and for the sixth time since the format was inaugurated in 2008. Bilateral problems have often led to the postponement or cancellation of these summits but no one has opted to dismiss them completely. The summits offers a platform for dialogue and allows the partners to meet at eye-level, which is of particular importance to the smaller partner, South Korea. Park and Abe met for the first time in November 2015. The controversy over the comfort women had just flared up again and it was clearly not the time for a bilateral meeting. The trilateral summit provided a suitable setting for talks and an important agreement over the issue was reached only one month later.

Last December, the summit was to be held in Japan but was postponed due to Park’s suspension from office. Since then Abe has made several attempts to revitalise the event and in June invited Moon and Xi to meet in Japan in late July so as not to come too close to the 19th NCCPC. Shortly after China refused the invitation, the official version being bad timing whereas the unofficial one appears to have been THAAD. Yet all three leaders met bilaterally on the sidelines of G20 in July and compared to the icy atmosphere at Xi’s and Abe’s last encounters things seem to have somewhat turned for the better.

What makes this more than just reading tea leaves is that trilateral cooperation is actually taking place. Only this year the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat organized several ministerial meetings in areas such as trade, environment, disaster management and finance. The foreign ministers lastly met in August 2016 in Tokyo. In this symbolic year which marks the 45th anniversary of Chinese-Japanese diplomatic relations, Abe has refrained from visiting the Yasukuni shrine on the August 15 anniversary of the war’s end. Moreover, the Chinese ambassador to Japan in a speech last month spoke of the strengthened cooperation between the two countries after Abe recognized the importance of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Below the high level of politics people to people exchange between the two countries is growing, too. This year a record number of 5 million Chinese visited Japan, more than from any other country.

Let’s make no mistake: We won’t see Xi and Abe golfing together anytime soon. Animosities between the two have historical roots and the respective roles Abe’s grandfather and Xi’s father played in the Sino-Japanese wars. But these are different times. China and Japan as well as South Korea are all seeking regional stability and a solution to the DPRK nuclear crisis. Signs are boding well that some more good will might show itself as early as next month, when the three leaders meet at the APEC forum in Vietnam. There are rumours of a possible summit in December. Let’s hope it actually takes place and starts the ball rolling towards reconciliation.