Relations warm between Japan, China and South Korea

tpbje20151102017_53734637There has been a breakthrough in Japan’s diplomatic relationship with China and South Korea. The leaders of the three countries met for the first time in three years last weekend. A few days later, China’s premier urged Japanese businesses to maintain their trade with China, despite a slowdown in China’s rate of economic growth.

On Sunday, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, China’s Premier Li Keqiang and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea met in Seoul. Such meetings had been suspended since 2012 amid disagreements over history and territory. Afterwards, the leaders issued a joint declaration stating that their trilateral cooperation has been “completely restored”. They promised to resume their regular meetings and said they would work towards greater economic integration.

The media were largely positive about Japan’s role in the summit. For example, Joseph Nye of Harvard University wrote in the Huffington Post that Mr Abe has been relatively successful in terms of foreign and defence policy. Defence has been a keynote issue for Mr Abe. He has enhanced the role of the Japanese Self Defence Force but he has not overturned the pacifist clause of Japan’s constitution, a step which would have infuriated China.

This week, more than two hundred members of the powerful business association the keidanren travelled to Beijing. The Chinese premier Li Keqiang urged them to strengthen business ties with China. He promised to broaden market access and provide a more open and fair investment environment for foreign companies.

The relationship between South Korea and Japan still suffers from the pain caused by Japanese occupation. The biggest stumbling block, according to President Park of South Korea, is the issue of comfort women. Such women were enslaved by Japan to provide sex for its troops, and articles which shame Japan over the issue often appear in the Korean media. Following the meeting in Seoul, the two countries agreed to hold more talks on the issue and Mr Abe said they “should not leave behind difficulties for future generations” in building a co-operative relationship.

When it comes to the legacy of occupation, China shares similar resentments against Japan to South Korea. However, that does not mean they necessarily gang up on their former enemy. South Korea and Japan have more in common politically with each other than they do with China; both are allies of the United States. For Japan, the ultimate diplomatic goal is cordial relations with all its neighbours and with with the US, a challenge made more more complex by China’s rapid economic rise and increasing diplomatic assertiveness.