Foes China and Japan finally headed for talks during Asean: sources

Beijing and Tokyo making 'final preparations' for first bilateral talks in nearly two years; Japan and South Korea also slated for fence-mending talks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 August, 2014, 3:52pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 August, 2014, 10:52pm

Japan and China are making final arrangements to hold foreign ministerial talks – possibly today – in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, sources familiar with bilateral relations said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday hinted at the possibility of meeting with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida soon, telling him ”see you” when the two rushed past each other by chance at the venue of a regional meeting.

If realised, it would be the first such meeting since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power in December 2012.

The two governments have broadly agreed to hold talks between Fumio Kishida and Wang Yi on the sidelines of Association of Southeast Asian Nations-related meetings through Sunday in Naypyidaw, the sources said.

But the talks may take the form of an informal chat rather than formal talks, reflecting strained relations over territorial and historical issues, they said.

Kishida plans to call for Wang’s cooperation in setting a meeting between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping when he hosts a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November in Beijing.

It is not known, however, whether China may show any change in its position that it will not hold a summit with Abe unless Japan recognises the existence of a territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, administered by Japan but claimed by China, and Abe promises not to visit the war-related Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

READ: Asean ministers want legally binding code of conduct in South China Sea

On Friday, Wang hinted he may meet bilaterally with Kishida while in Naypyidaw, saying, “It’s just a matter of formality to meet or not to meet. What is most important is if there is a will to improve China-Japan relations.”

Wang told reporters he expects Japan to show action towards an improvement in bilateral ties.

Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea held rare talks on Saturday, diplomatic sources said, in a potential ice-breaking meeting following a collapse in relations.

Kishida met with South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se, with greatest interest focused on whether the talks paved the way for a summit between the leaders of the two countries.

The last official meeting between the two foreign ministers was in September last year in New York, reflecting strained relations over a territorial dispute and differing perceptions of wartime history, particularly the second world war.

In the meeting, Kishida was expected to tell Yun that although Japan reviewed how a 1993 apology over Asian women forced to serve in wartime brothels was created, the government did not intend to revise the so-called Kono statement itself.

South Korea has criticised the review, saying it undermined the sincerity of the apology.

Yun was likely to repeat Seoul’s demand that Tokyo settle the so-called ”comfort women” issue in a way that is agreeable to the surviving victims, including an apology and compensation.

Japan has maintained that the issue of compensation was legally settled by agreements the two countries signed when normalising diplomatic relations in 1965.

Since taking office in December 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has yet to hold one-on-one talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who took office in February 2013.

A summit between the leaders of the two nations in March, brokered by US President Barack Obama, failed to dampen the rancour between the neighbours, which stems from disputes related to Japan’s 1910-45 rule over the Korean peninsula.

They include a territorial row over a tiny batch of rocky islets and Seoul’s demands for further reparations for Korean women – so called “comfort women” -- forced to work as sex slaves in Japanese military brothels during the second world war.

Japan has long maintained that all issues relating to the colonial period were settled under a 1965 bilateral treaty that normalised diplomatic ties with South Korea.

INFOGRAPHIC: Troubled waters - the sources of maritime conflict in South China Sea

But in a sign of the depth of the antipathy, Seoul’s foreign ministry this week issued a statement branding Japan’s claim to the islands “ludicrous” and “unacceptable”.

The rift is a source of increasing anxiety for the United States, whose strategic “pivot” to Asia is on a more fragile footing with its two main military allies in the region barely on speaking terms.

The Asean is composed of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Key partners include China, India, Russia, the US and the European Union.

On schedule this weekend are the Asean-plus-three foreign ministerial meeting on Saturday and the 27-member Asean Regional Forum and a foreign ministerial session of the East Asia Summit on Sunday.

Agence France-Presse and Associated Press