Tokyo — Last week was supposed to see Japan host the first trilateral Japan-China-South Korea summit outside of regional forums such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The summit, originally scheduled for Sept. 22, had already been under threat with South Korea delaying making an official decision about whether it planned to attend. But it was postponed indefinitely with the abrupt resignation announcement of Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda at the beginning of September.
Fukuda had come to office pledging to improve ties with Japan's neighbors, and there were high hopes he would be able to continue the work of his predecessor Shinzo Abe, who had begun mending fences badly damaged by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
“Looking at it from hindsight, the summit would have been an appropriate rounding up of Fukuda's Asia diplomacy. It would have been of symbolic significance to set a new tone for the Northeast Asian powers,” said Professor Yasuyo Sakata of Japan's Kanda University of International Studies.
In May, Fukuda outlined his position on regional relations in a major speech in Tokyo entitled “When the Pacific Ocean becomes an inland sea: Five pledges to a future Asia that acts together.” Inspired by the ‘Fukuda doctrine’ put forward by his father, former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, the younger Fukuda laid out a vision of cooperation in which Japan would play a central role in helping ASEAN develop as regional community and in creating a sense of trust in Asia.
Like Abe, Fukuda was quick to reach out to China, paying a visit to Beijing in December before receiving a return visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao in May.
“The relationship seemed to be on the upswing," said Mel Gurtov, professor emeritus of political science at Portland State University. "I think Fukuda took steps to take China off the table.”
One of these steps was Fukuda's refusal to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals are enshrined along with Japan's war dead. Koizumi sparked annual outrage in Beijing with his visits there, but Fukuda made a point of instead offering flowers at a nearby secular facility.
Sakata believes relations with South Korea also got off to a good start, especially with the election of a new president, Lee Myung-bak, to succeed Roh Moo-hyun.
Japan-South Korean relations under Roh were awkward, with Seoul responding angrily to a Japanese prefecture’s unilateral decision in 2005 to announce an anniversary day named after a disputed islet. The move was followed by an angry “message to the nation” in which Roh warned South Koreans must be prepared for a “diplomatic war.”
Lee pledged to improve ties with Japan and said South Korea would not demand an apology from Japan over its colonial rule nor ask it to reflect on its past.
“Many in Japan had high hopes for the more moderate conservative, internationalist
government,” Sakata said. “But expectations were so high that experts in both countries had to warn that it would be dangerous to have too high hopes.”
These hopes came crashing down with the furor over the Japanese government's decision to in effect describe the disputed Takeshima islets, known as Dokdo in South Korea, as Japanese territory in junior high school teaching guidelines. The decision provoked a furious response from South Korea, including the recall of its ambassador.
L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, believes the dispute could have even more serious repercussions.
“If mishandled this issue could be extremely dangerous,” he said. “There isn't political space to be forward looking on this issue in Korea.”
Flake argues that what he calls the Korean “hyper response” has actually served to raise the profile of the issue in Japan and that it reduced the flexibility of a weak prime minister such as Fukuda to deal with the issue.
“Prior to the real flare up of this issue in 2005, no one in Japan had really heard of this ... But Roh raised this to the point where it became an issue in Japanese politics,” he said.
But he believes the onus is now on Japan to move to settle the issue. “If Japan thinks about this in terms of its national interests, this is not the Northern Territories (dispute with Russia), it is not Senkaku, there are not oilfields. If Japan is thinking about its role in the region then Japan ought to be big on this issue and ought to make a move to resolve it.”
Gurtov said he believes the handling of the dispute also indicates that the three sides of the Japan-China-South Korea triangle are not equal lengths.
“I think even with the change in South Korean administrations, the weight of diplomacy is on the side of the Chinese,” he said. “The best indicator is on technical questions. It is interesting to look at how they have dealt with Dokdo on the one hand and the Koguryo (kingdom dispute with China) on the other. With the Chinese, the Koreans have very much soft-pedaled. I think that's symbolic of where the South Koreans feel their interests lay.”
In May, Lee met with Hu to discuss a range of commercial and diplomatic issues, and the two said they were upgrading their existing “comprehensive” partnership to a “strategic and cooperative” one.
Gurtov believes this closeness is also evidenced by the apparent fascination of many South Koreans with their giant neighbor, including the large numbers studying there. “China's rise seems to have grabbed hold of the Koreans – especially young Koreans,” he said.
But Han Park, director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues at the University of Georgia, argues this apparent closeness is rooted largely in pragmatism, not least commercial.
“There has been a dramatic increase in the number of South Korean students going to China. But 70 or 80 percent are going to study the language, compared with those going to the U.S. where they pursue substantive degrees,” he said. “With South Korea it is about economics – there is no ideological similarity. So although there has been exploding trade between them, it is still just economic.”
China is South Korea’s largest trade partner, with bilateral trade between the two reaching about US$145 billion last year, according to the South Korean trade ministry.
But Park believes that there are limits to what these economic links can achieve politically.
“Economic interests may tie these three together, but there are these security and territorial issues. So the relationship is going to be bumpy,” he said.
And Gurtov says the election last week of Taro Aso as Japanese prime minister is unlikely to alter the equation much.
"I think that for the immediate future, Aso will be so preoccupied with the economy and upcoming lower house elections that he will not pay much attention to those relationships,” Gurtov said. “Though hawkish by reputation, the last thing Aso needs is a foreign policy dispute.”
Jason Miks is managing editor of International Affairs Forum
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