Diplomatic manoeuvring makes for strange bedfellows in Northeast Asia
In a mere few days, the political dynamics of Northeast Asia have seemingly shifted. President Xi Jinping's ignoring of tradition by last week visiting South Korea ahead of long-time ally North Korea unambiguously denoted frustration and displeasure. Japan and the North have made progress on their long-standing dispute over Japanese abductees, with some sanctions being dropped. In place of unquestioned practice, there is now practicality.
Given the threats and instability, this is as it should be. Xi and his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun-hye, joined forces at a summit against the North's continued intransigence over its nuclear weapons programme and called for favourable conditions for a resumption of six-party talks to negotiate their destruction. The leaders also elevated bilateral relations, signing cooperation deals, billions of dollars in business agreements and vowing to conclude a free-trade pact this year. North Korea proved how out of step it is with sentiments in Beijing and Seoul by firing missiles ahead of Xi's trip.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's agenda is similarly flawed. While he has made political capital at home by forging ground on the abductees issue, shaky relations with China and South Korea have been further damaged by his cabinet's reinterpretation of the pacifist constitution to allow Japanese troops to fight overseas. Beijing and Seoul responded angrily, while Xi and Park reportedly discussed their nations joining forces to mark the 70th anniversary next year of the end of Japanese occupation with its second world war defeat. Nor should Tokyo's deal with Pyongyang be considered ground-breaking; it does not mean Japan has greater influence over the isolated state or that other facets of their fractured relationship are about to change.
China has no desire to dramatically alter its diplomatic and economic ties with North Korea; the threat of a flood of refugees pouring into Chinese territory should the nation collapse is too worrying a prospect. Exerting pressure through improved ties with the South is a more promising strategy. Such an alliance sends a signal to Abe to set aside his nationalistic ways in favour of dialogue. There is also a message for the US, a close ally of South Korea and Japan: it has to do more to temper Japanese provocations and make greater effort to get talks on North Korea back on track. Only with shared goals and by working together is there a hope of stability replacing the present uncertainty and diplomatic gloom.