After years of diplomatic hiatus, marked by festering territorial disputes and mutual estrangement over historical animosities, Northeast Asian powers of Japan, South Korea, and China have taken a decisive step towards managing their geopolitical differences to preserve stability and vital trading relations among themselves.
For the first time in three years, their foreign ministers held a high level trilateral dialogue in late-March to address their mutual security concerns, particularly North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, as well as explore prospects for greater cooperation, especially in terms of trade.
The primary aim of the talks was to pave the way for the Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean heads of state to hold a summit later this year. Undoubtedly, the burden of history also shadowed the meeting.
Marking the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Imperial Japan, both Beijing and Seoul are intent on pushing Tokyo to express unequivocal remorse by reiterating its formal apology for past crimes, refrain from making revisionist statements, and address concerns vis-a-vis reparations for the victims of World War II, especially with respect to “comfort women”.
“The problems related to history are not about the past, but are about the present,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated after the meeting, a sentiment that was echoed by his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, who, in turn, emphasised the importance of “the spirit of looking squarely at history and moving forward to the future”.
For the Abe administration in Japan, its aim is to de-escalate tensions with neighbouring countries, avoid strategic isolation in Northeast Asia, deepen trade relations and institutionalise crisis management mechanisms with neighbours, particularly China. Tokyo is heavily concerned with avoiding a military showdown in the East China Sea, where it is locked in a precarious territorial standoff with Beijing over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Since the late-2014 historic summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Beijing, Japan has feverishly pursued direct talks with China, including their first high-level bilateral security talks after four years.
Growing anti-Japan protests, especially in China, and intensified territorial disputes, between Japan and its neighbours, led to the suspension of the trilateral Japan-China-Korea dialogue in 2012. Over the succeeding years, Japan and China inched ever closer to an armed confrontation in the East China Sea, while South Korea ramped up – along with China – its criticism of Japan’s alleged bouts of historical revisionismvis-a-vis Imperial Japan’s World War II aggression. As a result, Asia’s leading industrial powers found themselves locked in a dangerous geopolitical dance.
In light of China's increasing territorial assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, Washington has maintained that a strong US-Japan-Korea trilateral alliance is vital to keeping Chinese maritime ambitions at bay.
Increasingly, warm relations between China and South Korea accentuated Japan’s strategic isolation in Northeast Asia. In recent years, China has emerged as the leading export destination and trading partner of South Korea, the economy of which has increasingly decoupled from Japan and the US. In mid-2014, Xi made the unprecedented decision to skip a trip to China’s long-time ally North Korea – South Korea’s archrival – to visit Seoul, where he was greeted with unprecedented warmth and pageantry.
Eager to deepen the wedge between Seoul and Tokyo, the Chinese leader, in a speech at the prestigious Seoul National University, declared: “In the first half of the 20th century, Japanese militarists carried out barbarous wars of aggression against China and Korea, swallowing Korea and occupying half of the Chinese mainland.” It was a calculated effort at courting a US ally and isolating Japan.
Although South Korea and China have their own territorial disputes, with occasionally violent spats in the Yellow Sea, Seoul has carefully cultivated strong ties with its giant neighbour in order to keep North Korea in check and maintain robust trade and investment relations. Ultimately, South Korea is interested in acting as a bridge between China, on one hand, and the US, on the other.
Constraining China’s ambitions
In light of China’s increasing territorial assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, Washington has maintained that a strong US-Japan-Korea trilateral alliance is vital to keeping Chinese maritime ambitions at bay. The US and its top Asia ally, Japan, are primarily concerned with China’s posturing in the Western Pacific.
US President Barack Obama had to expend considerable diplomatic capital to bring Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye together on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague in early 2014. Washington has consistently encouraged Tokyo to refrain from any provocative statement or action that may jeopardise ties with Seoul and rekindle historical animosities.
There are some encouraging signs that Japan is determined to revive frayed ties with neighbouring countries. Recent months have seen a flurry of security talks between Japan and China to manage their territorial disputes. Earlier this year, representatives from Japan and China’s foreign ministry, navy, and air force held crucial talks on establishing necessary mechanisms (eg: regular consultations, hotlines, and common communication methods for risk mitigation) to avoid accidental clashes in the high seas and in the skies.
Also, the Abe administration is preparing a formal statement of apology ahead of marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II later this year. Restoring trilateral talks with China and South Korea represents another crucial step in normalising relations among the Asian powers.
Given the depth of their age-old animosities and the complex nature of their ongoing territorial disputes, the full restoration of trilateral dialogue demands a herculean diplomatic effort. Nonetheless, the Asian powers have taken the first necessary steps in managing their long-standing differences.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.