There seems to be peace wind blowing in Northeastern part of Asia. This does not mean to suggest that all past suspicions and hatreds that the three Notheastern Asian states – Japan, China and Koreas – carry towards each other are instantly buried. But some of the latest moves by each of these countries plus North Korea are pointer for a peaceful Asia. Let me identify some of these.
First, inter-Korean talks took place for first time in two years, in early January following North Korea’s Kim Jong-un’s expression of willingness to engage in dialogue with the South in his New Year address. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in lost no time to respond quickly inviting North Korea to participate in the Winter Olympics Games that South was hosting in PyeongChang from February 9 to 25. Moon also successfully persuaded President Donald Trump to postpone the joint annual military drill until the Gams are over. Kim Jong-un sees the annual military drill as preparation of invasion of North Korea and therefore postponement of the drill had huge symbolic value. Moon’s new move also warmed South Korea’s relations with China, North Korea’s main benefactor. If Moon’s sports diplomacy could molly-coddle and lead to freezing of Kim’s nuclear ambitions remains unclear at the moment. A lot would depend upon Trump’s policy and if he eschews his option of launching a preventive military strike on North Korea. The situation could dramatically reverse if the joint military drills are resumed after the Olympic Games as Pyongyang has already warned that it would continue to perceive the resumption of the drill as a hostile act and take appropriate steps.
Secondly, despite the chill in relations between Japan and South Korea over the Comfort Women issue, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo agreed to travel to South Korea to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics Games and talk with Moon directly.
Thirdly and the most important in these peace moves is Japan’s engagement with China, seen as a bully in the region because of its aggressive and assertive stances in regional issues with utter disrespect to the sensitivity of other neighbouring countries which suspects China’s real intentions. This article shall deal in some detail the third point only and what that means for peace in Asia.
Japan’s foreign minister Taro Kono travelled to China in the last week of January, the first such visit in two years, signaling a thaw in ties between Tokyo and Beijing. Bilateral ties have suffered considerably owing to rows over territorial and historical issues. Though this move opens a window for improving ties between the two, experts remain skeptical that relations will improve soon enough, given the differences in regional strategies. Here, Abe’s move to send Kono to Beijing could be comparable to Moon’s engagement strategy with the North’s Kim. Though in either case no immediate dividend may be expected, at least the first such move in both cases in two years could lay the ground and create the right atmosphere to further talks.
Kono’s Beijing sojourn is significant on another count as both the countries mark 40 years of their signing of a bilateral peace and friendship treaty and after both Xi Jinping of China and Abe of Japan have bolstered their domestic power bases. The strong leadership bases provide an ideal opportunity for both to move ahead with negotiations on various matters. Though Beijing continues to remain North Korea’s principal ally, Beijing is equally perturbed with Kim’s nuclear and missile programs and therefore wants to work in cooperation with Japan so that equilibrium is maintained in East Asia. Kono and his counterpart Wang Yi agreed in principle to make further efforts so that reciprocal visits by their leaders are resumed. In his talks with his counterpart, Kono underscored that as the world’s second and third largest economies, Japan and China “have a major responsibility in safeguarding the stability and prosperity of Asia and the world at large”.
In particular, both seem to be on the same page on how to deal with North Korea. Japan felt rattled when North Korea fired a ballistic missile over its island of Hokkaido in August 2017 and therefore seeks a united front against Pyongyang. Kono also discussed possible arrangements for a trilateral summit coming spring between leaders from China, Japan and South Korea. Kono’s efforts was a step further on this as officials from Japan, South Korea and China met in the Philippines in November 2017 to discuss the possibility of again holding a trilateral summit between them. The last one was held in 2015. Both sides experienced a major break in relations in 2012, after China responded furiously to Japan’s nationalization of uninhabited East China Sea islands that Japan controls but which China claims.
Though Abe’s visit to Beijing in 2014 moved a step towards normalization, mutual distrust continues over the islands, which Japan calls as the Senkakus and China as the Diaoyus. Taiwan also claims the islands, referring to them as Diaoyutai. When a Chinese nuclear powered attack submarine was found operating just outside Japan’s territorial waters in early January, Japan expressed concern. The submarine later surfaced in the high seas flying the Chinese flag. Japan’s Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera had reacted that such Chinese act “unilaterally raise tensions” and vowed to “respond swiftly if a similar incident happens”. Undeterred, three Chinese coast guard vessels passed through Japan’s territorial waters surrounding the East China Sea islands. This was the third such intrusion in January itself. China was probably trying to study Japan’s ability to patrol the area and detect intrusions. From its own side, Japan is also on guard. With a view to educate its people, the Japanese government recently opened a museum in Tokyo to present evidence intended to support its position and garner popular support.
Like the comfort women issue between Japan and South Korea, China cannot easily forget Japan’s brutal invasion and occupation of large parts of China before and during the World War II. Despite Japan’s defeat, China feels that Japan has never shown adequate contrition for its past acts and thus cannot forget its painful history. The Communist Party in China has been also fueling anti-Japanese sentiment by using heavy-handed nationalist propaganda in schools and state-controlled media. The governments of post-War Japan finds it difficult how to correct the historical wrongs committed by the predecessor rulers.
Relationships between the three Northeastern states are complicated, despite efforts to seek peace by the three. Though Moon government in South Korea seeks to mend ties with China and reaches out to North Korea by his sports diplomacy, China cannot overlook the fact that South Korea remains a close ally of the US. Though Seoul under the government of Park Guen-hye reached an agreement with the US for the deployment of the sophisticated anti-missile system known as THAAD intended to counter the threat from Pyongyang, Moon government has not taken any decision for its removal despite Beijing’s demand. Beijing feels that the THAAD batteries peer into China’s security. Moon has only agreed not to expand the system, which pleases Beijing but partly.
Though Kono’s visit opens a window for Abe’s visit to China later in 2018, suspicions and mistrusts are unlikely to go away so soon. The world’s second and third largest economies have been plagued by a long-running territorial dispute over a cluster of East China Sea islets. China also suspects Abe’s intentions and efforts to amend Article 9 of the Peace Constitution. And yet, dialogue as a means to resolve differences have not been abandoned. Abe ad Xi met in November 2017 on the side-lines of a regional summit in Vietnam.
Addressing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs remains tricky. China may be perturbed by Pyongyang’s defiant attitude but has constraints to go beyond a point when it could exert real pressure. It has its own strategic compulsions. Trump and Abe want Beijing to put more pressure on the North as its nuclear and missile programs are seen as threat to the entire globe. It is expected that Kono’s visit to Beijing may pave the way for a trilateral summit between leaders from China, South Korea and Japan, followed by a visit by Abe to China and a visit by Xi to Japan soon. Moon’s sports diplomacy and Abe/Kono’s forward looking foreign policy strategies are welcome moves for peace and stability in the Northeastern part of Asia.
*Dr. Rajaram Panda is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Reitaku University, JAPAN. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect either that of the ICCR or the Government of India. E-mail: [email protected]