Trump and Kim Overshadow Breakthrough in China-Japan Relations

TOKYO, BLOOMBERG -- As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomes top leaders from both China and South Korea to Tokyo for the first time in seven years, he has been presented with an awkward agenda item: North Korea.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will take part in the trilateral summit in Japan’s capital on Wednesday, signaling their intent to lay aside disagreements over territory and past wars. Such meetings had been an annual event until old rivalries over Japan’s colonial history boiled over in 2012.

Securing the summit ought to be a triumph for Abe, who had pushed for the three-way talks as a stepping stone to normalizing ties with Japan’s biggest trading partner, China. Instead, the regional spotlight has been stolen by North Korea following Kim Jong Un’s breakthrough meeting with Moon last month and the unprecedented summit he plans to hold with U.S. President Donald Trump.

While three Asian neighbors have an intense interest in resolving the standoff over Kim’s nuclear weapons program, their differing approaches make it hard to agree on anything substantive. Abe has hewed closely to Trump’s call for maintaining “maximum pressure” to induce Kim to give up his nuclear weapons and missiles, whereas China and South Korea have sought gestures to encourage compromise by Kim.

Reassuring Japan

“Japan has always been less enthusiastic about North-South rapprochement than other countries in the region,” said Amy King, senior lecturer at the Australian National University. “China and South Korea will need to be able to find ways to reassure Japan that North-South rapprochement will not come at the expense of Japan’s own security,” to reach any substantive agreement, she added.

The three-way meeting will focus more on cooperation between the countries than on North Korea, China’s vice foreign minister, Kong Xuanyou, told reporters last week, while Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday that he wanted the leaders to establish a common direction on the issue. Abe also wants to ensure that his concerns about Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago are taken seriously.

The group might still find some common ground on trade, after Trump threatened action against all three to reverse decades of expanding trade surpluses with the U.S. The trio accounts for about one-fifth of global economic output.

Chinese Gestures

More progress is expected from Abe’s one-on-one summit with Li, which the Japanese leader wants to use as a springboard for a trip to Beijing and an eventual visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Japan. While Moon departs within the day, Li has been given the status of an official guest, and he and Abe will visit the northern island of Hokkaido together as part of a leisurely trip that runs through Friday.

The two will agree on a series of projects, Japanese media have reported, from a transfer of crested ibises to the launch of a maritime and air communications mechanism aimed at avoiding unintended military clashes at sea. They will sign a deal on resuming currency swaps and China will grant Japan investment quotas in its bond and equity markets, Li said in an essay published in Japan’s Asahi newspaper.

Tensions between China and Japan escalated in 2012, when Japan nationalized part of a chain of disputed islands close to Taiwan. The move sparked sometimes violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, and damaged trade and investment ties between Asia’s two biggest economies. Since then, a slow thaw in the relationship has allowed Abe to meet with Xi on the sidelines of international conferences.

The two leaders discussed Korean talks and their own bilateral ties in their first-ever phone call last week.

“Japan-China ties are improving, albeit slowly and incrementally,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, and the author of a book on the bilateral relationship. “Economic ties are the binding element here, and we are likely to hear more at the meeting about the Japanese response to OBOR,” she added, referring to Xi’s signature “One Belt, One Road” regional infrastructure plans.

The week’s events are likely to provide a welcome domestic boost for Abe, whose voter support has been damaged by a series of scandals ahead of an election for leadership of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party in September.

“The summit’s main deliverable is the fact that these proud countries are talking,” said Giulio Pugliese, a lecturer at King’s College London and author of a book on China-Japanese ties. “That is a positive in itself.”