THE foreign ministers of South Korea, China and Japan will meet for the first time in three years this weekend after bitter disputes over history and territory drastically scaled back high-level contacts and even raised security fears.
Anti-Japan sentiment in South Korea and China has grown sharply in recent years over what they see as Japan’s growing nationalism and its push to obscure its brutal colonisation of the Korean Peninsula and invasion of China in the first half of the 20th century.
The annual trilateral talks have been suspended since they were last held in China in April 2012.
The political fights are a source of concern for the US, which wants to solidify its alliances with key allies South Korea and Japan to better deal with a rising China and growing nuclear threats from North Korea.
No major breakthrough is expected from tomorrow’s meeting, but analysts say that resuming the talks is a meaningful step toward easing tension.
When the foreign ministers met in the past, a leaders’ summit usually quickly followed but no such announcement is expected this time. Analysts say the resumption of the summit talks is crucial in prompting more high-profile bilateral talks where contentious issues can be discussed.
South Korea and China are expected to demand that Japan softens its position on history issues, and how Japan reacts will determine the fate for any leaders’ summit, said analyst Lee Dae-woo at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.
Since taking office in early 2013, South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye has never held official one-on-one talks with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. Chinese leader Xi Jinping met Mr Abe last November on the sidelines of a regional conference that Beijing hosted in their first meeting since either took power in late 2012. Mr Park and Mr Xi met five times.
At the centre of the Beijing-Tokyo spat is a cluster of East China Sea islands, which is controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing. Japan’s nationalisation of the islands in 2012 sparked anti-Japanese riots and China then sent patrol ships to repeatedly enter the surrounding waters to confront Japanese coastguard vessels.
Mr Abe’s 2013 visit to a shrine where some war criminals are honoured incensed China and South Korea. Other thorny issues included Japan’s reinterpretation of its war-renouncing constitution and an alleged attempt to undermine its past apology for forcing Asian women to provide sex to Japanese soldiers at wartime military brothels.
Despite their harsh history, the three countries are linked economically, with China the biggest trading partner for both South Korea and Japan. They are also members of now-stalled regional disarmament talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons programmes and plan to visit the US this year.