Japan pledges to hold three-way summit soon

TOKYO • Japan will host a trilateral summit with China and South Korea at the "earliest possible time", although not necessarily within this year, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said yesterday.

The high-level three-way meeting was intended to be an annual affair when it began in 2008.

After 2012, only one summit was held - in Seoul in 2015 - as relations frayed over issues such as World War II and territorial disputes. Last year's meeting was cancelled when South Korea's then president Park Geun Hye was impeached over a corruption scandal.

It is Japan's turn next to host the meeting involving its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae In. During their talks in Manila, Mr Abe and Mr Li had vowed to work towards an early realisation of the meeting.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono said on Monday that Japan hopes to hold the summit "in January, if not in December, if possible". This, in effect, walks back on Tokyo's public goal to hold the summit by this year.

Mr Suga said yesterday that key political events last month - the Chinese Communist Party's 19th National Party Congress and a general election in Japan - meant that arrangements had to be put on hold for at least a month.

"Each country has its own diplomatic schedule that we will need to coordinate," he added.

Mr Moon will visit Beijing next month for a bilateral summit with President Xi Jinping, it was announced over the weekend, after the leaders met in Vietnam.

Their meeting comes after China made nice with South Korea last month, after a year of harsh Chinese trade sanctions over the deployment of an American anti-missile system on South Korean soil.

Mr Xi and Mr Moon agreed on the need for sustained dialogue with North Korea to make the regime give up its ballistic missile and nuclear development programmes.

This is where they deviate from Mr Abe's view, which is the same as that of United States President Donald Trump - that dialogue for the sake of dialogue is meaningless.

"China and South Korea might have felt it necessary to hedge the US-Japan relationship," Keio University political scientist Yasushi Watanabe told The Straits Times.

Mr Moon, who took office only in May, has already received an invitation to visit Beijing. Mr Abe, on the other hand, has yet to visit China despite having been Prime Minister since 2012. Still, Mr Abe and Mr Xi vowed to make a "fresh start" to bilateral ties when they met in Danang, Vietnam, last Saturday.

Mr Suga said the two governments will work closely to realise the mutual visits next year, which marks the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between China and Japan.

Walter Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2017, with the headline 'Japan pledges to hold three-way summit soon'. Print Edition | Subscribe