Japan Holds the Key to Improving Regional Ties

      March 23, 2015 12:36

      The foreign ministers of Korea, China and Japan met in Seoul on Saturday for the first time in almost three years. In a statement, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and his Chinese and Japanese counterparts Wang Yi and Fumio Kishida vowed to work together for a trilateral summit at the most "mutually convenient, earliest time" and recognized the need to acknowledge history and look to the future.

      As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lurched further and further to the right since he took office in December 2012, Korea-Japan relations have deteriorated to a level that made it difficult for even working-level officials to sit down together.

      Abe wrote to President Park Geun-hye twice seeking to hold a summit but kept denying his country's responsibilities for World War II atrocities, including the forced mobilization of Korean women as sex slaves for Japanese troops. This made it extremely difficult for Park to respond to Abe's advances.

      China-Japan ties have also reached an epic low. This was clearly evident during the APEC Summit in Beijing in November last year. Chinese President Xi Jinping met Abe briefly on the sidelines, but the atmosphere was anything but amicable with Xi appearing stony-faced throughout the half-hour meeting.

      Chinese and Japanese media reported that the foreign ministers of the two countries engaged in heated exchanges during their meeting in Seoul over Japan's World War II atrocities.

      The trilateral meeting was probably arranged due to a shared sense of crisis that no side would benefit if relations are left to deteriorate any further. The three neighbors face many obstacles ahead. Their historical disputes are both deep-rooted and extremely complicated to solve. Yet they cannot afford to stop talking with each other altogether.

      Seoul-Beijing relations are presently challenged by Korea's long-standing alliance with the U.S., but Korea and China at least keep discussing the areas of contention. However, this has not been the case with Japan. At this rate, no trilateral summit will ever take place. 

      Japan's attitude will be the key factor in determining whether the three countries will be able to continue dialogue. Abe is scheduled to visit the U.S. in late April and become the first Japanese prime minister to deliver a speech in front of both the Senate and House of Representatives. He is also to give a speech marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II on Aug. 15.

      If he then either denies his country's wartime atrocities or attempts to whitewash the fact by omitting words such as "invasion," relations with Korea and China will worsen even more.

      It may be important, as Tokyo claims, for Seoul and Beijing to look to the future rather than fixate on the past, but it is Tokyo that should be wary of making further mistakes.

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