China, Japan and South Korea look to move beyond past bitterness
Donald Kirk says leaders of the three nations can talk trade without bringing up territorial disputes
They talked, and then they talked about talking some more. If there's one takeaway from the three portentous summits hosted by South Korea's President Park Geun-hye over a long weekend, it's that all agreed it's better to keep on talking than giving one another cold shoulders and exchanging recriminations through the media and lower-level officials.
The real breakthrough when it comes to talking was the understanding between Park and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that, yes, they would talk again about reaching an understanding on compensation for the tens of thousands of "comfort women" forced to serve Japanese soldiers in the second world war.
The chances of actually coming to terms are not good. Japan has been saying for years that it has already granted compensation in the form of an aid package extended when Japan and South Korea opened diplomatic relations half a century ago. Korea's position is that Japan owes much more compensation on an individual basis.
Still, the fact that Park hosted Abe in a one-on-one meeting at the Blue House, the presidential residence and office complex in Seoul, and they wound up agreeing to meet again represented a thaw in the icy relationship that has existed since the last Japan-Korea summit held three years ago before her election to the top post.
Now that they are on talking terms, perhaps they can see their way realistically to discussing other issues, notably military cooperation. Both Japan and South Korea rank among the staunchest military allies of the United States. They are not, however, allied with one another. Their refusal to get along has represented a serious problem in planning for all contingencies as long as North Korea spews forth bellicose rhetoric and threatens to conduct a fourth nuclear test while developing a warhead small enough to fit on the tip of a long-range missile.
The summit between Park and Abe came a day after the "trilateral" summit at which they and Premier Li Keqiang sought to open a new era of "cooperation" - a "historic" turning point, in Park's view. That summit also ended with a promise to meet again - in this case on an annual basis as the leaders of Korea, China and Japan had been doing annually for five years until the last trilateral get-together in 2012.
The trilateral process had broken down for the same reason that the leaders of Japan and Korea were no longer talking to each other - residual antipathy towards Japan for the suffering inflicted during the conquest of much of China as well as harsh colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.
The joint statement that emanated from the trilateral summit was long on promises but short on actual commitments and planning. That they could meet at all was remarkable, however, considering Japan's ongoing occupation of the Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyus to the Chinese, in the East China Sea and encounters with Chinese fishing vessels within the 20km limit rigorously patrolled by the Japanese coastguard.
Also, there have been overflights by Chinese planes to which Japan has responded by scrambling its own aircraft - a dangerous game that risks open hostilities.
Then there was the Japanese claim to two huge rocks - the Dokdos to the Koreans, Takeshimas to the Japanese - in the middle of what the Koreans call the East Sea, a.k.a. the Sea of Japan. A Korean police garrison zealously guards the rocks, which the Japanese say are theirs.
And, yes, one other territorial dispute seems equally insoluble - that's the Ieodo rocks, almost entirely under water, 150km southwest of the southernmost Korean island province of Jeju and 275km east of the Chinese mainland. China claims the rocks (Suyan in Chinese), but the Koreans have fixed a helicopter landing pad, a weather station and communications gear to the rocks and are not about to leave.
READ MORE: South Korea and Japan discuss South China Sea as trilateral summit with China draws to close
Did the three leaders at the trilateral summit consider these conflicting claims? A carefully worded 55-point Declaration for Peace and Cooperation in Northeast Asia, issued after the summit, breathes not a word about any such contentious differences. Rather, the statement is laden with promises of plans, hopes, a wish list for developing the "process of dialogue and cooperation". There was, said the declaration, "common recognition that the situation in which economic interdependence and political/security tensions coexist must be overcome in order to build permanent peace, stability and co-prosperity in the region, and to continue to develop trilateral cooperation unwaveringly".
In fact, probably the most substantive summit was the conversation between Park and Li on the day before the trilateral get-together. Li no doubt ranks below President Xi Jinping , but he had the authority to make economic deals and pitch for trade and investment - perhaps the real reason for burying festering differences. He and Park witnessed the signing of 17 agreements on matters ranging from trade and economy to people-to-people exchanges. They talked about concluding a free trade agreement and even discussed a Northeast Asia free trade zone.
Then, in a wide-ranging speech before the chieftains of Korea's biggest chaebol, or conglomerates - including Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motors, LG and SK - Li invited cooperation on enormous projects in China, among them the vast road and rail network across Asia.
That vision of peace and prosperity was undoubtedly the most compelling aspect of three days of summitry in which all agreed to sublimate if not bury historical bitterness and look ahead to an exciting new era for Asia and the world.
Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea