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Calming waters? Why Japan, S. Korea, and China are suddenly talking

Sunday's meeting of East Asia's top powers, their first in three years, is mostly about starting up cordial relations. But that alone is progress. 

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    Protesters wearing masks of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, and South Korean President Park Gyeun-hye participate in a rally against Abe's planned visit in Seoul on Friday. Mr. Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will visit the South Korean capital for a trilateral summit with Ms. Park on Sunday.
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The 18th century Englishman of letters Samuel Johnson once remarked that “a dog walking on his hind legs ... is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Much the same could be said of Sunday’s summit between the leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea, the first such meeting among the region’s top powers in more than three years.

After a prolonged period of hostility between Japan and its neighbors over territorial disputes and historical grievances, “the fact that the meeting is being held at all is 90 percent of what will be accomplished,” says Daniel Sneider, associate director of the Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.

Though little of substance is expected to come out of the day-long talks, they carry much symbolic importance, suggests Wang Chong, an East Asia analyst at the Charhar Institute, an independent think tank in Beijing. “When things are at their worst, they can only get better,” he says.

The summit’s host, South Korean President Park Gyeun-hye, is also planning to meet Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe on Monday for their first ever bilateral talks. That step is likely to help reassure Washington that its two key regional allies may be mending their frayed ties.

The three-way meeting – China will be represented by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, not President Xi Jinping – is a sign that in the face of an economic slowdown in Asia, most notably in China, the three countries are increasingly reluctant to let political differences trump common economic interests.

Still embroiled

The differences still run deep. Japan is embroiled in disputes with both Korea and China over the ownership of remote islands, while neither of Japan’s neighbors feel Tokyo has adequately atoned for Japan’s often brutal occupation of their territory before and during World War II.

In recent months, however, Ms. Park has dropped her insistence that Mr. Abe express a “correct understanding” of Koreans’ wartime suffering before she would meet him.

The Chinese government has also softened its rhetoric with Japan over control of the East China Sea islands known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan. Beijing seems less intent on isolating Tokyo than it was a year ago.

That has much to do with the economic situation, as China’s growth rate slows from its predicted pace. In the face of Chinese hostility, Japanese investors sank only $4.3 billion dollars into China last year, down 39 percent from 2013 according to official Chinese figures.

So far this year, Sino-Japanese trade is down 11 percent from last year, Chinese Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen pointed out last month. Beijing’s trade with Seoul fell by five percent.

Shelving differences? 

If anything comes out of Sunday’s meeting, analysts here and in Korea predict, it will be a pledge to give more impetus to stalled negotiations on a three-way Free Trade Agreement, which have sputtered over the past three years.

“The most important thing is to find ways to shelve our differences and focus on economics,” argues Wang Dong, who teaches international relations at Beijing University. “Economic cooperation is so important that we can no longer put it aside ... and eventually people realize that it is in their mutual interests to take more pragmatic attitudes.”

To be sure, political and territorial issues have not gone away. The Japanese coast guard has reported just as many intrusions by Chinese vessels into Japanese territorial waters around the Diaoyu/Senkaku this year as last, and Abe has shown few signs of flexibility in dealing with Chinese and Korean grievances about Japan's wartime legacy. Japan has also the Philippines and Vietnam in opposing China’s numerous territorial claims and island building projects in the South China Sea.  

South Korean diplomats are hoping that Abe and Park might make progress on the long running dispute over "comfort women," Korean women who were forcibly recruited into brothels serving Japanese soldiers during WWII. Abe’s government says there is no evidence that this happened and that the women were volunteers. Korea disagrees with this view, and is backed by the US in statements by President Obama. 

On the eve of Abe’s departure for Seoul, however, the chances of a breakthrough appeared very slim, according to sources close to the last minute negotiations. “You don’t kiss the girl on your first date,” says Kuni Miyake, a Japanese political analyst and former Abe adviser.

Rather, adds Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Yasuhisa Kawamura, Abe expects “a candid and frank exchange of views” with the Korean leader, who has taken a personal interest in the former comfort women’s campaign.

The summit holds out “no promise of a major breakthrough because there have been no regional changes that would allow that,” says Han Sung-joo, a former foreign minister for South Korea. “It won’t be a turning point, but it will be a step in the right direction. It’s something to build on.” 

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