Japan's gaps with China, South Korea, not yet bridged

Japan's gaps with China, South Korea, not yet bridged
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C) is led by a Shinto priest as he visits Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo in this December 26, 2013 file photo.

NAYPYITAW - Although Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida held meetings here on Saturday with his counterparts from China and South Korea-two neighbours with which the nation has not held high-level talks for some time due to soured relations-a path to resolving the issues that remain is not yet visible.

Tokyo is hoping that the talks, held on the sidelines of foreign ministerial talks between Association of Southeast Asian Nations members and other countries, will pave the way for summit meetings with leaders of the two neighbours.

"I met the foreign ministers of South Korea and China, with which our nation has been barely able to achieve dialogue at a political level, and was able to hold candid talks," Kishida wrote on Facebook on Moday. "The important thing is whether we can take a second step. I think it could be a tough road, but I will work as hard as I can."

The "second step" refers to summit meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, which have not yet been realised within the second Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Since Japan's nationalisation of three of the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture in September 2012, Japan-China relations have deteriorated to one of their lowest points.

When Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine in December last year, both China and South Korea strongly criticised the visit, reinforcing their united front against Japan's "perception of history."

Seeking ways

The Japan-China foreign ministerial meeting held late Saturday evening in Myanamar's capital is the first of its kind since the formation of Abe's second Cabinet in December 2012 and Xi's taking office in March 2013.

As Xi met with former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in Beijing in July, some observers regard China as also seeking ways to improve bilateral relations with the possibility of a summit meeting when the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit is held in Beijing in November.

A source close to bilateral communications said that Xi is successfully consolidating power as can be seen in the corruption-related investigation of Zhou Yongkang, a former head of the Communist Party of China's Central Politics and Law Commission who is close to former party General Secretary Jiang Zemin. Jiang is known for his hard-line stance against Japan.

"When Xi takes a firm grip on power inside the nation, he will be able to take a slightly conciliatory stance on Japan policy," the source said.

However, whether Saturday's foreign ministerial talks will help realise the summit talks or improve bilateral relations remains uncertain.

While the Foreign Ministry has refrained from disclosing the contents of the talks, Kishida told reporters, "We expressed our candid opinions to each other."

The Chinese side reportedly spelled out conditions for holding the summit talks: an announcement by Abe that he will not visit Yasukuni Shrine and Tokyo's admission that a territorial dispute exists over the Senkakus.

Saturday's talks are not believed to have bridged the gap between the two nation as the Japanese side is adamant in saying that it will not accept any conditions for holding summit talks.

A considerable number of government officials are taking a cautious stance, with one saying: "It's not easy to rebuild troubled Japan-China relations. Someone meeting with someone does not mean a drastic change in relations."

Saving face at home

On Saturday, at the opening of the first Japan-South Korean foreign ministers talks to be held in 11 months, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se snapped, "The two nations' relations were substantially damaged by the Japanese leader's visit to Yasukuni Shrine, historical perception issues and the reexamination of Kono statement in defiance of opposition."

However, a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official calmly accepted the remarks, saying, "That's only a performance for people in his country while cameras are there."

The official added that the talks after media left the room "went on in a positive atmosphere," with expectations for an improvement in relations.

But another senior Foreign Ministry senior officials said, "Considering that [Yun] is still doing such things when [the two countries] are trying to improve the relations by overcoming difficulties in domestic politics, it's going to be hard going."

Yun reportedly urged Japan to make concessions over issues such as the so-called comfort women, saying, "It's necessary to meet conditions."

The bar is still set high.

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