BEIJING (KYODO/BLOOMBERG) - Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday (Aug 21) asked Japan and South Korea to seek a solution to resolve their differences “through dialogue,” amid concern that worsening relations between Tokyo and Seoul may threaten regional economic stability down the road, as their top diplomats met in Beijing for their first such three-way talks since 2016
Mr Wang said the North Asian countries pledged Wednesday to work together to support free trade and maintain regional growth. They reaffirmed their commitment to creating a free-trade zone between them and complete negotiations by the end of the year on the 16-nation Asian trade pact known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
“With downward pressure on the global economy, the three important economies of China, Japan and South Korea can enhance macroeconomic coordination and work together to uphold the free trading system,” Mr Wang said, flanked by counterparts Taro Kono of Japan and Kang Kyung-wha of South Korea. “We will ensure open economy in interest of global growth and prosperity.”
The three neighbours face rising economic anxiety as President Donald Trump upends the US’s traditional role as a defender of a free trade system that has supported the rapid growth of their export-dependent economies. China has moved over the past couple of years to quiet security disputes with both Japan and South Korea that disrupted economic ties.
Japan’s top diplomat also called on Beijing and Seoul to bolster trilateral cooperation even when respective bilateral ties sour, but his South Korean counterpart Tokyo’s moves to tighten export controls against her country.
Mr Kono said, “Two countries sometimes face various difficulties respectively, but even under such circumstances, Japan, China and South Korea should work together trilaterally.”
A Japanese government official briefing reporters later in the day quoted Mr Kono as telling Mr Wang and Dr Kang that the foreign ministers “should refrain” from raising issues related to bilateral relations during the trilateral meeting.
Dr Kang, however, told her counterparts that South Korea hopes that the three nations will stick to “free and fair” trade for prosperity in the region in an apparent jab at Japan, underscoring that strains between Tokyo and Seoul are unlikely to wane soon.
She also said at a joint press appearance following the talks, “It is important to eliminate unilateral and arbitrary trade retaliatory steps and remove uncertainties” in East Asia.
The Japanese official said Wang did not make comments aimed at mediating in the row between Tokyo and Seoul.
Recently, Japan-South Korea ties have plunged to the lowest point since normalization in 1965 over Japanese imposition of export control measures in the wake of a string of South Korean court rulings last year ordering compensation for wartime labour.
At a three-way meeting in Bangkok earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged his Japanese and South Korean counterparts to make efforts to ease their confrontation, but no resolution has been in sight.
Although Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul agreed Wednesday to accelerate negotiations to reach regional free trade agreements, Japan-South Korea trade spats would make it more difficult for them to be realized, foreign affairs experts say.
China has voiced eagerness to expand trade cooperation with its neighbors, as the world’s second-biggest economy has been slowing down due largely to an intensifying trade war with the United States.
At their meeting, meanwhile, the foreign ministers from the three East Asian nations failed to set a date for an annual summit of their leaders, slated for later this year in China.
The summit, held on a rotating basis by Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul, has occasionally been suspended against the backdrop of a chill in Japan’s relations with its two neighbors over history and territorial disputes as well as political turmoil in South Korea.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae In have shown little sign of making concessions in the escalating economic and political row between their two countries.
In 2018, South Korea’s top court ruled that Japanese companies must compensate people claiming to be victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea.
Mr Abe’s government has argued that the decisions are against a 1965 bilateral agreement that settled the compensation issue “finally and completely,” criticizing Moon’s administration for violating an international treaty.
Japan has strengthened export controls on South Korea since last month, citing security anxiety. Seoul has insisted that the measures are designed to take reprisals against the court rulings, triggering a tit-for-tat trade dispute between the two countries.
Mr Kono, Mr Wang and Dr Kang met at a resort in the Chinese capital also at a time when North Korea’s consecutive test-firings of new weapons have added to uncertainties in the regional security situation.
The foreign ministers confirmed that the three nations will work in tandem to achieve denuclearisation of North Korea.
North Korea has repeatedly launched projectiles, including what Tokyo and Seoul have suspected to be short-range ballistic missiles, off its east coast since July 25, in protest of a South Korea-US joint military drill that took place from Aug 5 to Tuesday (Aug 20).
As China and South Korea have expressed willingness to deepen economic relations with the North, Mr Kono called on Beijing and Seoul to fully implement UN sanctions resolutions against Pyongyang.
UN Security Council resolutions have banned North Korea from using ballistic technology.
Among other issues raised at the foreign ministerial gathering were how to boost trilateral people-to-people exchanges on the occasion of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. In 2018, South Korea hosted the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.