That foreign ministers of Japan, China and South Korea met in Tokyo this week to jointly urge North Korea to stop provocative acts such as its repeated ballistic missile launches and nuclear weapons tests shows that the three countries are better off coming together to deal with common regional challenges than in giving in to their mutual disputes.
Officials of the three governments should also realize that tensions over the mutual differences rise in the absence of top-level diplomatic contacts. It is a positive development in that regard that the foreign ministers reportedly agreed to work toward realizing a trilateral summit of their national leaders in Japan by the end of the year.
Wednesday’s talks among Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his counterparts Wang Yi and Yun Byun-se were the first held in Tokyo in more than five years. The three countries have been taking turns since 2007 to host the trilateral foreign ministerial meeting, but it was canceled in 2013 and 2014 amid the deep confrontation between Tokyo and Beijing over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Just before the meeting began, North Korea fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in the Sea of Japan. The missile is estimated to have flown roughly 500 km at a high-altitude trajectory — showing that it might have flown 1,000 km at a normal trajectory. The launch is yet another sign of progress in Pyongyang’s missile technology that poses an increasingly grave threat to regional security. The three foreign ministers together condemned the launch and urged countries to stand by the sanctions against North Korea under the U.N. Security Council.
It’s unclear whether the statement by the foreign ministers will have any impact on stopping North Korea’s repeated acts of provocation. But divisions among the regional powers will only leave more room for Kim Jong Un to defy international pressure to halt his regime’s nuclear and missile programs. Japan, China and South Korea need to cooperate with all countries with a stake in the region to dispel this serious threat to stability.
The Northeast Asian neighbors continue to face bitter bilateral differences to each other. Tensions have surged between Japan and China in recent weeks as dozens of Chinese coast guard vessels, along with hundreds of fishing boats, swarmed the waters around the Senkaku Islands for days, with some entering Japan’s territorial waters. Japan’s repeated protests over the moves — which may have been retaliation for Tokyo’s criticism of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, in particular its rejection of a recent ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague denying its claims — went unheeded, with Kishida lamenting the considerable deterioration in bilateral relations.
Relations between China and South Korea, which until last year tended to take a joint stand against Japan over issues related to wartime history, have recently soured as Beijing protested Seoul’s decision last month for deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defense system on its soil to counter the growing threat of North Korean missiles — which China says will pose a threat to its own national security. In his talks with Yun on the sidelines of the trilateral meeting, Wang repeated the protest and urged South Korea to reverse the decision.
Tokyo-Seoul ties have meanwhile turned for the better following the two government’s agreement last December to resolve the “comfort women” dispute over South Korean women forced into frontline brothels for the Japanese military before and during World War II. Just before the trilateral meeting on Wednesday, the government made a formal decision for the promised disbursement of ¥1 billion to a South Korean fund to help the victims and their families with medical and social care.
Japan’s relations with its Northeast Asian neighbors have long been marred by wartime history-related issues and territorial rows. Previously, however, the three countries maintained close and frequent top-level diplomatic contacts despite their differences. That Wang’s attendance at this meeting in Tokyo marked the first visit by a Chinese foreign minister to Japan since President Xi Jinping took office in 2012 says a lot about the current state of Japan-China relations. Despite the progress on the comfort women issue, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has yet to visit Japan since she took office in 2013.
Many of the bitter disputes are unlikely to go away easily, but the three governments should be able to keep the disputes from fueling mutual tensions — given their deep political, economic and social connections. Japan and China agreed in 2014 to use dialogue and consultations to prevent the Senkaku dispute from worsening. The recent bilateral tensions over the islands suggest that the two governments have yet to achieve that. The foreign ministerial talks should lead the three governments to seek more frequent top-level dialogue.