Photo: AFP
Despite their squabbles, Japan, South Korea and China are now partners. Photo: AFP

Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Beijing Monday for separate bilateral summits.

Abe and Moon both fly to Chengdu, Sichuan Province, tomorrow, where they will attend the annual trilateral summit held between the three major states of Northeast Asia; last year’s edition took place in Japan. The Christmas Eve trilateral in Chengdu will be presided over by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

The two days will witness a diplomatic dance among the leaders of the three nations, the steps complicated by the dynamics that unite and divide them.

China has been hammered in its trade war with the United States, and collateral fallout has hit Japan and Korea – both of which number China as top trade partner and the US as number two.

Seoul and Tokyo both maintain alliances with Washington. Yet Seoul and Tokyo, engaged in a complicated historical-diplomatic-trade spat with each other, are barely on speaking terms. Tuesday’s meeting will tell if anything comes of hopes for a re-set in the Abe-Moon relationship.

Xi versus Li

The fact that Abe and Moon both decided to visit Xi in Beijing before the long-planned Chengdu trilateral with Li suggested appreciation of the power politics at play inside the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo.

“Since Xi took power, he is in charge of everything!” Lee Seong-hyon, a China specialist at Seoul’s Sejong Institute, a think tank, told Asia Times. “Both Moon and Abe know who is in charge, so the whole focus is rather on their meeting with Xi than with Li.”

Customarily, the Chinese president deals with politics and foreign affairs, while the premier deals with the economy – and both Abe and Moon have a range of political and economic issues to discuss with their Chinese counter parties.

However, under Xi this division of power has blurred – particularly given the declaration of a virtual trade war against China by US President Donald Trump, which has dragged commerce into the strategic space.

While the two visitors’ meetings with Li on Tuesday will focus on nitty-gritty trilateral cooperative issues that will have been hammered out over the preceding 12 months by teams of sherpas from the three countries, their separate meetings with Xi Monday grant both visitors additional scope – and additional comfort.

“At the end of the day, it is more reassuring from Moon’s or Abe’s perspective to get an answer from Xi than Li,” Lee said. “Xi will stamp the important decisions that China will make.”

Abe meets Xi

Since ties strained over historical and territorial issues moved back to a “normal track” after an October 2018 re-set, relations between Beijing and Tokyo have greatly improved.

Beijing now refrains from criticizing Tokyo over Pacific War historical issues and a heated and militarily dangerous row over a disputed island chain, the Senkaku/Diayous, has cooled. More Chinese tourists are visiting Japan than ever before, and Xi is expected in Japan for a state visit next April.

Their separate relations with the United States comprise one issue bringing the two leaders closer.

On the strategic front, Abe seeks improved ties with Beijing to hedge against the unpredictability of Trump, who some Japanese fear could pull US troops out. On the economic front, Xi needs continued strong trade ties with Japan, a G3 economy, to hedge against the economic damage he is suffering at Trump’s hands.

Also in the strategic space, the two were likely to discuss their approaches toward North Korea.

Xi is expected to press Abe to clarify his stance on the Beijing-led, 16-member RCEP, or Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an Asia-wide trade agreement. Japan has been part of negotiations, but a Japanese official said recently that Tokyo will not join if fellow democracy India, which has issues with some RCEP provisions, stays out.

And there are issues dividing Abe and Xi.

Abe has publicly criticized China over human rights and Hong Kong – two issues that Xi is known to take seriously. Japan has also deployed vessels to the South China Sea, where the US Navy has challenged Chinese forces and China’s man-made islands.

Moon meets Xi

Moon met Xi in Beijing on Monday morning.

Their discussions covered the situation in North Korea, which is on the brink of ending two years of denuclearization negotiations with the United States under a self-set year-end deadline. China is North Korea’s treaty ally and its major trade partner.

Noting the stalled Pyongyang-Washington dialog, Moon reached out to Xi. “This situation in no way benefits our two countries – or North Korea,” Moon said, according to a readout released to foreigner reporters by the South Korean presidential office. “I hope that we can work together even more closely.”

Moon suggested that South Korea and China could co-operate in third countries where China’s well-funded Belt and Road Initiative is underway. Moreover, China is South Korea’s leading trade partner and Moon stated that bilateral trade this year has topped $200 billion, and eight million visitors have been shared.

However, Moon also said: “We may feel a momentary sense of regret toward each other.” That is most likely diplomatic-speak for the economic retaliation Beijing has aimed at Seoul since the latter approved the deployment of THAAD, a US anti-missile system, on its soil. Beijing insists that the system can snoop on its own defenses, and has demanded its removal.

The economic cost to Seoul has mounted to the billions of dollars, with K-pop concerts and Korean games still being banned in China, and major corporations feeling the heat.

Read: How ongoing economic retaliation by China against a US anti-missile system is costing South Korea

There had been widespread speculation in South Korea that the THAAD issue would be raised in the closed-door talks between the two leaders.

Xi, speaking broadly, said that China and South Korea should deepen and develop their strategic cooperative partnership, accommodate each other’s core interests and major concerns, and lift bilateral ties to a higher level, according to Chinese news agency Xinhua.

Abe versus Moon

While Xi was the center of the action in Beijing Monday, Li may be thrust into the background Tuesday. Although the event is being held in China, eyes will be focused on the visiting democratic leaders and US allies, who are scheduled to hold a bilateral on the sidelines of the trilateral. Major questions hang over how well that will go.

Since the left-wing Moon took office in 2017, ties with the right-wing Abe have been seriously frayed. Seoul and Tokyo are currently engaged in a multi-dimensional dispute that has spilled over customary historical and diplomatic firewalls to impact their trade and security relationship.

The issue started with South Korea in 2017 unilaterally disavowing a 2015 bilateral agreement on “comfort women” and then, in late 2018, ordering the seizure of Japanese assets to pay wartime forced laborers – in contravention, according to Tokyo, of a long-standing 1965 treaty and compensation package. Tokyo responded with export restrictions on South Korea and the removal of the country from a most-favored trade partners’ list. South Korea promptly retaliated in kind.

The dispute has vexed Washington, which seeks a united front in the region against China, North Korea and Russia. There are some hopes for a thaw Tuesday – ironically, in a meet that will take place on Chinese soil.

South Korea, having threatened to pull out of an intelligence sharing agreement with Tokyo over the issue, did a last-minute U-turn last month and maintained it. Last Saturday, Tokyo announced that it was lifting export curbs on a material needed by the South Korean semiconductor industry.

“The Japan-South Korea relationship remains in a severe state but it’s important for Japan and South Korea, along with the United States, to work together under the current regional security environment,” Abe told reporters before leaving for China.

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