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Trilateral Summit in Seoul: Background and Some of the Results

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TND Guest Contributor:  Vladimir Terehov 

On November 1, 2015, Seoul hosted a summit lasting three and a half hours between the Prime Ministers of China and Japan and the President of South Korea (Republic of Korea, RK). The last time such an event was held was in May 2012.

It was a long and arduous process. Together with a variety of concomitant circumstances, the progress and results of the meeting have provided an occasion for reflection on its impact on the further development of the complex political situation in this extremely important Northeast Asian (NEA) sub-region.

Initially, two points must be mentioned. Firstly, at the negotiating table there was an invisible (but omnipresent) leading, regional and global player – that is, Washington.

Secondly, the second world power, China, was represented at the talks by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, not the leader of the country – President Xi Jinping, who was preparing to visit Vietnam and Singapore at that same time.

For observers of the situation in Northeast Asia, this second point is quite informative. In the specific language of diplomacy (which is highly revered in Asia), it contains a certain “message”, the general content of which can be expressed as follows: “something is wrong” with the format of the summit, which prevented the attendance of the Chinese Leader.

If we keep in mind the active development in recent years of the relations between China and South Korea (as seen, in particular, in the successful trip to Seoul in July 2015 by the same President Xi Jinping, and his fruitful talks with President Park Geun-hye), then this “something is wrong”, which created some inconveniences for the Chinese leader, had nothing to do with the Republic of Korea.

Thus, in this case, only Japan could be a source of inconvenience, which is why instead of the meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister in Seoul, President Xi Jinping chose a trip to Vietnam and Singapore. And this is despite the fact that even together these two countries of the Southeast Asia sub-region (although China’s relations with them also “leave much to be desired”) do not have the weight in Asian affairs, which Japan has.

Japan’s political relations with RK also did not come out of the freezing stage until recently. The obstacle to their defrosting is the same problem of recent history and its (for RK) key element associated with the recruitment of Korean women for the army brothels during the war in the Pacific.

Despite the fact that after the meeting the leaders of the three countries on the sidelines of the APEC summit, held in Beijing in November 2014, saw hope for the autumn dusk to lift in Japan’s relations with both its neighbors, some new clouds continued to gather and contribute to its darkening.

Periodically, there have been conflicts of a political nature for various reasons, including the discrepancies in the assessment of the history of the Pacific War, which have acquired particular urgency in the year of the 70th anniversary of its end.

Thus, it is still unclear why Abe’s trip to Beijing for the celebrations to mark the anniversary of the completion of the Pacific War fell through. One can only assume that the adoption of a package of new legislation in the sphere of defense by the Japanese Parliament played a negative role.

Two weeks before the aforementioned summit, a new reason to “frown severely” (this time in Japan) was UNESCO honoring China’s request to include the documents of the “Nanjing Massacre” in the so-called list of “Memory of the World”.

In Japan, the fact of the “excesses” in the first days after the capture of Nanjing in December 1937 are not denied. However, Tokyo’s position on the evaluation of this episode of recent history has come down to (as is the case with the problem of the Korean “comfort women”) the contest of the incident’s scope and, consequently, the interpretation that what happened in Nanjing was a series of “collateral damage” incidents, which could occur during an assault of any city by any army in the world.

On the eve of the upcoming summit, in an effort to at least slow down the process of the accumulation of negativity, an important role was assigned to the Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi’s visit to Japan (who served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs till 2013), which took place on October 14, 2015.

During a brief visit to Tokyo, one of the leading Chinese politicians managed to receive a protest from Japan’s Foreign Ministry in connection with China’s submittal of the aforementioned documents to UNESCO, as well as to hold talks with the National Security Council Advisor Shotaro Yachi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

During the conversation with the distinguished guest from China, Shotaro Yachi expressed Japan’s concern about “Chinese muscle-flexing” in the disputed territories in the East China and South China Seas. This implied the conflict of recent years around Senkaku / Diaoyu in the East China Sea and Spratly archipelagos in South China Sea.

The Chinese guest apparently did not respond to the allegations and said that Japan-China relations were “in the process of improvement.” He urged his Japanese interlocutors to “appropriately assess the issues of history and current problems in the sphere of defense and security.”

Finally, the fact that on October 28 (that is, three days before the summit), the Japanese patrol ship joined the American aircraft carrier group to conduct exercises in the South China Sea in a “navigation security” scenario in this extremely important maritime areal for international trade, did not contribute to the formation of a favorable setting.

This action by the Japanese ship took on special symbolism because it happened the very next day after the USS “Lassen” from that same group encroached inside the 12-mile zone surrounding one of the artificial islands of the Spratly archipelago. In China, this maneuver by the USS “Lassen” has been rated as an invasion of national territorial waters.

According to the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, the Japanese Navy ship joining the exercises, which the US naval group was conducting in the South China Sea, was to demonstrate “the strengthening of the Japan-US alliance and serve as a warning to China“. It is pointed out that this action may be the beginning of a broader presence of the Japanese armed forces in the South China Sea.

And it looks like in the Indian Ocean as well. This is evidenced, for example, by the same Japanese ship participating in the traditional US-India naval exercise “Malabar”, which was held the previous week in the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean. After their completion, the ship accompanied the American aircraft carrier “Theodore Roosevelt” en route to Singapore.

In general, the regional political background, which had formed before the summit in Seoul, did not stimulate the leader of the second world power to “illuminate” it with his presence.

In this regard, the most important result of the summit was the very fact that it was held at all. In short news reports on its results, the parties agreed to hold such trilateral meetings on a regular basis and at least once a year.

The negotiators agreed to revive the project of creating a trilateral free trade area, which had almost died in the political shuffle.

Commendable intentions. Now, the rest are just details – to try and overcome the various obstacles that still impede their realization.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.

This work was published at the New Eastern Outlook and is reprinted with permission.


Source: http://thenewsdoctors.com/trilateral-summit-in-seoul-background-and-some-of-the-results/


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