With tensions rising in the South China Sea a few latitudes above, the trilateral relationship between China, South Korea and Japan has been improving slowly. South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Japanese Prime Minister Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang all attended the sixth Republic of Korea-China-Japan (KCJ) Trilateral Summit held in Seoul on 1 November. The three leaders pronounced that “trilateral cooperation had been completely restored” and that they “welcomed steady progress made in various areas of trilateral cooperation.” The 1 November meeting was the first trilateral meeting in three years and the first meeting since leadership changes in all three countries. The meeting is evidence that a new chapter is beginning in the troubled trilateral relationship. However, it is still uncertain if it will lead to long-term stability and cooperation between all three sides.
At the first trilateral meeting in 2008 the three leaders decided to formalise trilateral cooperation and “lay a solid foundation in promoting our tripartite cooperation in the years to come.” It was decided that the summit would be held in “the three countries on a regular basis.” Meetings were held regularly until May 2012 when the trilateral summits were suspended due to territorial disputes and Japan’s stance towards its actions during WWII. Initiating the summits was a brave move to try and move trilateral relations forward from the tensions and historical baggage that dominated the past.
However, as the hiatus of the summit suggests, underlying issues in the trilateral relationship overpowered the political will to move the relationship forward. Disagreements between the three sides include controversies about history textbook revisions, territorial disputes (Japan and Korea dispute sovereignty over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands and Japan and China dispute sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands) historical grievances concerning Japan’s behaviour during WWII and the continuation of visits by Japanese politicians to the Yakasuni Shrine (seen as a reminder of Japan’s militaristic past).
Public opinion also reflects the tensions which exists between Korea, Japan and China. In the 2014 Genron NPO poll of opinion between China and Japan, 93% of Japanese had an “unfavourable” (including “relatively unfavourable”) view of China – an increase from 90.1% in 2013. The Chinese had a similarly “unfavourable” view of the Japanese with 86.8% holding this view. This score, however, was a slight improvement from 2013 when an all-time high of 92.8% was recorded.
Korea-Japan public opinion does not fare much better. In the 2015 Genron NPO poll of opinion between Japan and Korea, just over half of Japanese respondents (52.4%) held unfavourable impressions of South Korea (including “relatively unfavourable”). This slightly improved from 2014 (54.4%), while those with “favourable” impressions also slightly increased to 23.8% (from 20.5% in 2014). 72.5% of South Koreans on the other hand, held an “unfavourable” view of the Japanese (increasing from 70.9% in 2014) and those holding a “favourable” impression of Japanese decreased from 17.5% in 2014 to 15.7% this year. While public opinion of Japan is at an all time low in Korea, according to the 2015 Asan Poll, 70.1% of respondents support a Korea-Japan Summit, indicating a recognition of the need to improve relations.
The recent resumption of the KCJ summit indicates that the leaders are cognisant of the need to improve relations and are able to take concrete action to move ties forward. As the final communique writes, the leaders recognise the need of “facing history squarely and advancing towards the future” in order to “work together to improve bilateral relations and to strengthen trilateral cooperation”.
The latest meeting was also received positively in the Chinese press with one editorial stating that it represented a “turning point for the political climate of NE Asia.” Some media reports in Japan suggested that while little “substantial” progress would be made, it would have a “large symbolic impact.” This view is shared by some reports in the Korean press.
While there are many challenges facing the trilateral relationship in Northeast Asia, and with public opinion at almost all time lows, strong leadership is needed to progress the relationship. The resumption of the KCJ trilateral summit suggests that current leaders possess the strong political will required to ensure long-term stability and cooperation in northeast Asia.
Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: Republic of Korea (Flickr: Creative Commons)