Shinzo Abe must remember that actions speak louder than words
With the first trilateral summit in three years likely to be held next month between Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul, the Japanese leader must be willing to change his ways
East Asia has much to thank North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump for. The uncertainties of their rhetoric and actions over the past year have created the conditions for a thaw in relations between China, Japan and South Korea.
A trilateral summit of leaders, the first since 2015, is likely to be held next month in Tokyo and that could lead to reciprocal visits by President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
A single gathering will not resolve disputes, but may build momentum to put ties back on a solid footing. The timing would be appropriate as this year marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between China and Japan.
A resumption of the trilateral mechanism would improve ties between Japan and its neighbours, and return life to talks over a much sought-after free-trade agreement. By working together, they may better address issues such as the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
The trilateral forum had been reduced to a dormant state by Abe’s insensitivity towards historical issues, the rising nationalism of his administration and a refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing towards China and Korea in the first half of the last century. Territorial disputes between Japan and its two neighbours heightened tensions. Not since 2011 have Chinese or South Korean leaders visited Japan.
But Kim’s nuclear and missile tests and Trump’s isolationist tendencies on trade caused a shift. Japan indicated it would change tack on its previous rejection of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. A sudden flurry of diplomacy over the North, spearheaded by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, eased Chinese concerns about a missile defence system the United States has built in the South.
The atmosphere was made even more positive after Abe met Moon on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics in February, a summit was set for April 27 between the Korean leaders and landmark talks involving Kim and Trump are likely to be held next month.
Premier Li Keqiang effectively broke the ice on ties with Japan by announcing at the end of last month’s meeting of the National People’s Congress that he would consider attending the trilateral summit, a move that all but gave the go-ahead for the once annual event.
Resumption could pave the way for Abe to meet Xi in Beijing and there may be an invitation for a reciprocal visit. Buttalk alone will not settle disputes such as that over sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkakus by Japan, or the “comfort women” issue that is the biggest thorn in Japanese and South Korean relations.
A bilateral summit offers a chance for a fresh start. From it could be built the trust that has been so lacking. But Abe, the biggest source of animosity, has to prove he is willing to change his ways.