East Asian summit between China, Japan and South Korea a promising step towards improving ties

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 November, 2015, 2:11am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 November, 2015, 2:11am

Getting relations between Japan and neighbours China and South Korea back on a friendly footing will take more than a single meeting of leaders. The trilateral and bilateral talks recently held in Seoul were therefore bound to be more about symbolic gestures than making substantive progress.

A three-way summit held for the first time since a freeze set in over Japanese claims to the Diaoyu Islands and history will again become an annual fixture and among the sentiments expressed in a communique was fresh resolve for a Northeast Asian free-trade zone. There is at last hope that differences can be overcome for the good of the region, but it will come about only with sustained political momentum.

Premier Li Keqiang , Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye held talks together and with one another, for China and South Korea to strengthen warm ties, and with Japan, taking steps to begin a thaw.

In their summit they spoke of shared concerns, among them economic difficulties, taming North Korea's nuclear programme, the threat of climate change and the need for a greater sharing of information and technology.

Li and Abe had not met before; they agreed to high-level economic and diplomatic dialogue and a push for talks on East China Sea interests, among them joint exploration of oil and gas reserves and the setting up of an air and maritime communications mechanism to prevent conflicts. The Japanese and South Korean leaders covered similar ground in their equally landmark meeting.

This is as it should be for a part of the world that, together, is a formidable economic force. China and Japan are the second and third-largest economies and South Korea the 13th; mutual trade, investment and tourism have remained solid despite the backlash to Abe's nationalist policies, but improved relations would obviously boost the outlook at a time of declining economic growth. Standing in the way are Japan's disputes over islands and refusal to properly acknowledge the atrocities committed against neighbours in the first half of the last century.

Precious opportunities have been lost by the chill in ties. The three-nation summit of leaders can serve as a foundation for better relations. Foreign ministers and lower-ranking officials also have to meet regularly, a necessity also recognised by the meetings. But hopes and pledges are meaningless without rhetoric being matched by action. President Xi Jinping and Park have important roles to play, but Abe holds the key.