As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed top leaders from both China and South Korea to Tokyo for the first time in seven years, he was forced to tackle an awkward agenda item: North Korea.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae-in took part in the trilateral summit in Japan’s capital on Wednesday, signaling their intent to lay aside disagreements over territory and history. Such meetings had been an annual event until antagonism over disputed islands boiled over in 2012.
Securing the summit ought to have been 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 US President Donald J. Trump.
The drama intensified on Tuesday as Kim traveled to China for his second meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in less than two months, and Trump dispatched US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to prepare for the upcoming summit.
While China, Japan and South Korea each 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.
“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.
Abe told reporters after the summit that the three countries agreed that United Nations Security Council resolutions on North Korea must be fully enforced.
He said that the other two leaders understood the need for a swift resolution to the problem of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea years ago.
“We must step up cooperation with the international community to make sure the current momentum toward complete denuclearization and stability in Northeast Asia leads to concrete action by North Korea,” Abe said.
He reiterated Japan would be willing to consider normalizing ties with North Korea, if the problems of its nuclear weapons, missiles and abductions were resolved.
For his part, Li called for joint efforts to speed up talks on a three-way free-trade agreement and the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said. The trio, which account for about one-fifth of global economic output, also agreed to step up cooperation on regional infrastructure.
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 Xi 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 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.”