SEOUL: The foreign ministers of South Korea, China and Japan gathered in Seoul on Saturday (Mar 21) for their first meeting in nearly three years, aimed at calming regional tensions rooted in territorial and other diplomatic disputes.
The three countries have strong economic ties but overall relations have long been tainted by unresolved historical issues dating back to Japan’s colonisation of the Korean peninsula and occupation of parts of China before and during World War II.
Both Beijing and Seoul have maintained a frosty distance from Tokyo in recent years, although Sino-Korean ties have been enjoying an upswing.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged all three countries to promote dialogue in a “forward-looking manner”, and the United States will also be closely following the meeting in Seoul.
Washington has described the rift between South Korea and Japan – its two main military allies in Asia – as a “strategic liability”, and would prefer they focus on forming a united front against an increasingly assertive China.
China and South Korea feel Japan has failed to express sufficient remorse for its wartime past – and both reacted furiously when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a Tokyo shrine that honours Japan’s war dead, including a number of senior war criminals, in December 2013.
That visit triggered the suspension of the annual trilateral meeting of foreign ministers, which was last held in April 2012. The resumption of the three-way gatherings marks a step forward and has fuelled hopes of a trilateral leadership summit – possibly later in the year.
While South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping have held two fruitful summits, Park has refused to sit down one-on-one with Abe, while Xi has only managed a brief meeting with the Japanese premier on the sidelines of an APEC gathering in Beijing last year.
Nevertheless, working-level cooperation has been maintained and on Thursday Japan and China held their first security talks for four years.
Saturday’s meeting is not expected to produce any major initiative, but could touch on a number of sensitive issues beyond those that have long troubled regional ties.
Among those is the new Chinese-backed multinational lender – the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – that the United States perceives as a threat to the Washington-led World Bank. Seoul is said to be “positively” considering joining the AIIB, while Japan’s stance has been decidedly cautious.
And then there is the US-backed ballistic missile defence system that Washington wants to deploy in South Korea as a deterrent to military provocation by North Korea. China has warned that deployment of the system, known as THAAD, on the Koran peninsula would undermine regional peace and stability.
The foreign ministers are due to hold bilateral talks on Saturday morning before the trilateral meet in the afternoon which is expected to conclude with a joint statement.