Japan will hold annual tripartite talks with South Korean and Chinese leaders on 9th May. The talks were announced in the wake of a flurry of developments in the Korean peninsula. Japan was largely isolated from lead up to the historic and symbolic summit between the two Koreas in April.
Korea was colonised by Japan in 1910 after the Korean emperor handed over his sovereign power and country over to the Japanese. Between 1937 and 1945, colonial rule was particularly harsh as Koreans were conscripted into factories or military service, and women were forcibly drafted as companions for Japanese soldiers. In 1945, colonial Japan surrendered to the Allies and withdrew from the peninsula. Korea was divided into two halves along the 38th parallel, and North and South Korea was formed.
In 1950, North Korea, supported by China and Russia, invaded South Korea. The United Nations and US forces intervened on behalf of the South and the invading army was driven out during the Korean War. The two nations signed an armistice in 1953.
South Korea and Japan have normalised relations. Both countries are allies of the United States. Japan’s Foreign Affairs ministry has stated that South Korea is “Japan’s most important neighbour that shares strategic interests with Japan.” However, statistics have shown that a majority of South Koreans maintain a highly negative view of Japan. Japan and South Korea have a territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks (Takeshima/Tokdo), which have been occupied by South Korea since 1954.
However, Japan’s ties with the North have remained virtually non-existent. Analysts have speculated that the Kim regimenever re-established its trust for the former imperial power. Japan has noted its vulnerability to military attacks from the North, particularly due to its limited offensive capabilities. In September 2018, Pyongyang fired a missile test over Japan. The Hwasong-12 rocket reportedly flew over Erimomoisaki on the Northern Island of Hokkaido before falling into the Pacific Ocean, 1,180km from the Japanese coast. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called this incident an “unprecedented” threat to the country. Read more on this incident here.
Japan and China
Ties between Japan and China have been strained due to their wartime past. China-Japan relations have been considerably better under Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister of Japan since September 2006. However, in the early 2010s, the relations deteriorated again, when Japan accused China of withholding its reserves of valuable rare-earth elements. The dispute at the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands also resulted in several aggressive encounters in the East China Sea. The Senkaku islands were formally claimed by Japan in 1895, however, in the 1970s, China began to reassert its claims over the islands. In 2015, Chinese aircraft approached Japan’s airspace more than 570 times.
However, the two countries have remained close business partners. In 2008, trade between the two nations grew to US$266.4 billion, a rise of 12.5% in 2007, making China and Japan the top two-way trading partners. Japan and China have made attempts to improve relations in recent years. In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo pledged to improve ties.
Japanese President Shinzo Abe will meet the South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Tokyo to discuss “regional issues” on 9th May. Abe will reportedly hold bilateral talks with officials from both countries on the side-lines of the summit.
“In hosting the trilateral summit, Japan is symbolically announcing that it is still an important player in the game,” June Dreyer, an expert on Sino-Japanese relations. As one of North Korea’s closes neighbours, Japan has significant security interests in any solution involving North Korea. Analysts have noted that Japan is likely to be wary of North Korea’s non-nuclear military powers such as medium and short range missiles, due to its proximity to the isolated nation. North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens are also an issue of concern for Tokyo.
"Japan is afraid that the Korean peninsula will become an arena of 'Great Games' confrontation as the US, China and Russia each exercise more explicit influence and power," an analyst from Japan's Aichi Prefectural University told The Straits Times. President Moon has advocated for Tokyo and Pyongyang to resume talks. “If Japan-North Korea relations are normalized, that would greatly contribute to peace and security in Northeast Asia beyond the Korean peninsula,” he told a Japanese newspaper.
However, China may have other priorities. Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou told media that that North Korea will not be the focus of the summit. Analysts noted that Beijing may be focussed on strengthening its economic ties to its East Asian neighbours, due to fears of a trade war with Washington. Trump has threatened both China and Japan with punitive trade measures. China may push for deepening economic cooperation with the aim of an eventual free trade pact.
Abe and Xi Jinping reportedly discussed the Korean Peninsula issue on a phone call earlier this month. "It is the first time that the Prime Minister of Japan and the President of China have held telephone talks," Abe told reporters afterward. "This means Japan-China relations are really improving." The two leaders agreed on the importance of "complete denuclearization" put forward by the Panmunjom Declaration.
Most recently, North Korean Kim Jong-Un met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Dalian on May 8th. This was the second meeting between the two leaders in less than two months. According to Chinese media outlet Xinhua, the two leaders “had an all-round and in-depth exchange of views on China-DPRK relations and major issues of common concern.”
Our assessment is that China, Japan, and South Korea share a common stance on North Korea’s denuclearisation. However, while Tokyo and Seoul are reliant on US protection, China may be keen to see American troops leave the peninsula. Japan would want to ensure that it remains under the American nuclear umbrella, and may therefore be anxious to ensure that it is a part of the decision making process. As stated earlier, China would also be keen to ensure that its interests are not compromised.
Additionally, we believe that the three major economic powers of East Asia would benefit from deepening economic relations, particularly amidst increasing American trade protectionism.