On May 9, 2018, Tokyo will host a meeting of the heads of government of Japan and China, Shinzo Abe and Li Keqiang, and South Korean president Moon Jae-in. It attracts attention for several reasons.
First of all, such a summit of the largest economies of East Asia is held irregularly, and therefore each time it becomes a significant event in regional and global politics. This format was launched in 1998, when Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul agreed to hold tripartite meetings on the sidelines of the ASEAN+3 summits. It was assumed that the main purpose of the “Big Three” meetings would be the political and economic situation in Northeast Asia, and above all regional economic cooperation.
In 2008, the meeting was for the first time held separately from the ASEAN forum and since that time it has taken place annually. However, after 2012, when Japan’s political relations with its East Asian neighbors worsened, the forum was frozen. The Big Three gathered only in November 2015, after which the meetings were again suspended because of political problems in Japan’s bilateral relations with neighbors and internal political instability in the Republic of Korea. On this background, the resumption of the tripartite meetings between the leaders of Japan, South Korea and China is of tremendous symbolic significance, representing a major step on the road to normalization of the recently aggravated regional political situation.
It is also important that the meeting will take place at the very height of the “détente” process on the Korean Peninsula, linked with the progress in dialogue between North Korea and the PRC, the US and South Korea on the issue of peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. And if Beijing and Seoul are in the midst of this process – the leader of the DPRK recently met with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts – Tokyo fell on its periphery, keeping the role of a passive recipient of information.
Moon Jae-in’s report about the inter-Korean talks with Kim Jong-un on April 27 is expected to be one of the most important items on the summit agenda. For Japan it is of particular importance, because Moon Jae-in, as reported in the media, raised the issue of kidnapped Japanese citizens at the meeting with the North Korean leader. Moon also passed to the DPRK leader Shinzo Abe’s proposal for a personal meeting, and Kim Jong-un reportedly expressed his readiness to hold such a meeting “at any time.” A public demonstration of gratitude of the Japanese side to Moon for his services is supposed to become a kind of starting point for a new stage in Japanese-South Korean relations. The move by the Japanese leader towards dialogue with the DPRK testifies to Tokyo’s gradual departure from the uncompromising line of tough pressure against Pyongyang, which no longer corresponds to the realities after the inter-Korean meeting. Certainly, the shifts in Tokyo’s approach are conditioned by the forthcoming US-North Korea summit in early June: Japan no longer wants to depend on the mediation of its allies, and prefers to launch a diplomatic offensive on the North Korean front.
For Shinzo Abe, this summit is of great importance from the domestic political point of view: its success will help the Japanese leader to boost his reputation and at least partially restore the ratings that have fallen catastrophically after the corruption scandals.
At the same time, it is difficult to presume any breakthrough on the issue of cooperation between the three countries on the North Korean problem, because Japan and South Korea, as allies of the United States, are on the other side of the barricades than China, which maintains, in spite of everything, allied position towards the DPRK. The approaches regarding denuclearization are also very different: if Seoul and Tokyo invest their hopes in the success of bilateral agreements, including those that will be achieved at the upcoming meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un. Beijing does not want to stand aside and counts more on a quadrilateral format involving China, the United States and two Koreas, as well as on the resumption of the six-party talks.
Trade is another topic of the forthcoming summit. Leaders of the three East Asian countries have something to discuss in connection with protectionist policies launched by the Trump administration. Trump introduced strict tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from China, Japan and India and other countries and revised the trade agreement with South Korea, which carries new serious risks to the regional trade regime.
Of great importance will be the development of bilateral relations between Tokyo and Beijing and Seoul. In addition to the tripartite meeting, Abe plans to meet with each of the East Asian leaders separately.
Currently, the Japan-China relations experience a period of warming, connected with the strengthening of Xi Jinping’s internal political positions and the presence of mutual interest in the development of economic ties. It is significant that Li Keqiang will be the first Chinese prime minister to visit Japan after Wen Jiabao’s trip in May 2011. It should be noted that the Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China pays a full diplomatic visit to Japan from May 8 to 11, during which he will meet with the Emperor of Japan, and the forthcoming tripartite meeting will be only one of the stages of this visit. In Japan, there are big hopes that Li’s visit will pave the way for an official visit of the Japanese Prime Minister to China and a return visit to Tokyo by President Xi Jinping.
As for President Moon, this will be his first official visit to Japan after assuming the post of president. Moon will be the first president of South Korea to come to Japan after Lee Myung-bak’s visit there in December 2012.