SEOUL (AFP) - The foreign ministers of South Korea, China and Japan met for the first time in nearly three years in Seoul on Saturday, in an effort to calm regional tensions rooted in territorial and historical disputes.
After a series of bilateral meetings, which included discussions on a possible summit between the countries three leaders, the top diplomats sat down for their first formal talks since April 2012.
Although the North-east Asian neighbours have strong economic ties, overall relations have long been tainted by unresolved issues dating back to Japan's colonisation of the Korean peninsula and occupation of parts of China before and during World War II. The 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 cooperation between the three Asian powers who collectively account for roughly 20 per cent of global GDP.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has described their lack of reconciliation as a "missing link" for peace and stability in East Asia. And 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.
- Japanese remorse -
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. The resumption of the annual trilateral meeting of foreign ministers marks a thaw of sorts and could pave the way for a leadership summit - possibly later in the year.
There was no set agenda, and it was possible the three foreign ministers would seek to maintain momentum by focusing on less sensitive areas of cooperation like disaster risk reduction and the environment. But Jun Ok Hyun, a former South Korean diplomat and a professor of international relations at Seoul National University, said the underlying tensions could not be ignored.
"As long as these historical issues are not properly dealt with, any meeting, including a summit between the three leaders, won't go much beyond some handshakes and photo ops," Jun said.
While South Korean President Park Geun Hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping have held two fruitful summits, Park has refused to sit down one-on-one with Abe, while Xi has only managed a brief meeting with the Japanese premier on the sidelines of an APEC gathering in Beijing last year. Nevertheless, working-level co-operation has been maintained with Japan and China recently holding their first security talks for four years.
- Containing North Korea -
Saturday's gathering kicked off with bilateral meetings, as South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Byung Se played host to his Chinese and Japanese counterparts, Wang Yi and Fumio Kishida.
One area of agreement in both cases was on the need to cooperate in curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions, Seoul's foreign ministry said.
Kishida and Yoon also called for more efforts to hold a three-nation summit "as soon as possible," the ministry said.
The trilateral talks were not expected to produce any major initiative, but could touch on a number of sensitive issues of particular interest to the United States. They include 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.
And then there is 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 has warned that deployment of the system, known as THAAD, on the Korean peninsula would undermine regional peace and stability.