SEOUL, South Korea, March 21 — The foreign ministers of South Korea, China and Japan pledged to set up a trilateral leadership summit at “the earliest” opportunity as they met in Seoul today for the first time in nearly three years.
The talks were an effort to calm regional tensions stoked by territorial disputes and historical rows with roots in Japan’s colonisation of the Korean peninsula and occupation of parts of China before and during World War II.
In a joint statement, South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Byung-Se and his Chinese and Japanese counterparts, Wang Yi and Fumio Kishida, said they had agreed to work towards a three-way summit of their respective leaders “at the earliest convenient time.”
They also declared their “firm opposition” to the development of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula — a clear reference to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Briefing journalists afterwards, Yoon said the joint statement carried “special significance” and was the product of “deep discussions” on a wide range of cooperative issues.
Started in 2007 as an annual event, the ministerial talks were last held in April 2012 before being suspended as relations went into a tailspin.
Their resumption marked a thaw of sorts that would be further underscored if a leadership summit were to take place later this year.
The last such summit was held in May 2012, and all three countries have appointed new leaders since then.
Lingering animosities, fuelled by ongoing sovereignty rows over island territories, have seen Beijing and Seoul maintain a frosty distance from Tokyo in recent years, hindering co-operation between the three Asian powers who collectively account for roughly 20 per cent of global GDP.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping have already held two fruitful bilateral summits.
But Park has refused to sit down one-on-one with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while Xi has only managed a brief meeting with Abe on the sidelines of an Apec gathering in Beijing last year.
China and South Korea, whose ties are strong, feel Japan has failed to express sufficient remorse for its wartime past.
Both reacted furiously when, in December 2103, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a Tokyo shrine that honours Japan’s war dead, including a number of senior war criminals.
In an apparent effort to create some momentum from today’s meeting, the joint statement made only a glancing reference to those tensions, saying the three countries had agreed to strengthen cooperation “in the spirit of facing history squarely”.
According to a South Korean government official, the Chinese side, while agreeing to a leadership summit in principle, had insisted that “certain political conditions” be met and cited Tokyo’s attitude on historical issues.
The talks had been closely watched by the United States and the wider international community which has called on the Northeast Asian neighbours to find a way to bury their historical hatchets.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently described their lack of reconciliation as a “missing link” for peace and stability in East Asia.
Ban’s spokesman said in a statement today that the secretary-general welcomed the meeting.
“The Secretary-General hopes that it will give a momentum to reinforce the trilateral cooperation mechanism,” the spokesman said.
“He further encourages the concerned parties to work closely to promote mutual trust and future-oriented cooperation for the peace and prosperity in the region.”
Washington is troubled by what it calls the “strategic liability” posed by the rift between South Korea and Japan — its two main military allies in Asia — and would prefer they focus on forming a united front against an increasingly assertive China.
Today’s gathering kicked off with bilateral meetings on a range of issues, including 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.
There was apparently no discussion on 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 is strongly opposed to the deployment of the system, known as THAAD, warning that it would undermine regional peace and stability. — AFP