John Nilsson-Wright
Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme
The recent meeting in Seoul between the foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea has raised hopes of renewed cooperation, but the countries remain sharply divided by history.
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shake hands before their meeting on 21 March 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images.Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shake hands on 21 March 2015 in Seoul. Photo by Getty Images.

The 21 March meeting in Seoul – the first such trilateral gathering in almost three years – is a positive sign that there may be a breakthrough in the diplomatic deadlock that has bedevilled relations between China, Japan and South Korea in the last few years. In principle, the three countries are committed to the idea of a summit between their national leaders, although it remains unclear when this will happen: Japan is pushing for an early meeting but China and South Korea are much more circumspect about the timing of any putative event.  

While the three foreign ministers met for just one hour, their joint communiqué expressed their hope to cooperate over a range of issues including environmental protection, counterterrorism, cultural exchange and restarting stalled disarmament talks with a nuclear-armed North Korea. The latest meeting builds on important earlier progress, including the November 2014 summit between China’s president, Xi Jinping, and Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe; a 2014 agreement between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington to share intelligence in dealing with the North Korean challenge; and, most recently, a Sino-Japanese agreement on 19 March to improve military-to-military communication to offset conflict in the East China Sea. 

Despite this progress, trilateral ties remain complicated by sharp disagreements over history and an intensifying public diplomacy contest between the three countries. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, used the Seoul meetings and related press conference to emphasize that the history issue remains a present concern. Yun Byung-se, his South Korean counterpart, referred both to Japan’s use of Korean ‘comfort women’ who were forced into sexual slavery during the 1930s and 1940s and to the broader question of how Japan plans to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the ending of Second World War later this year. 

The three countries’ motivations in playing the history card are various. For a Chinese leadership that wishes to advance a more assertive foreign policy agenda, representing Japanese Prime Minister Abe as a revisionist diluting apologies for the past helps to depict Japan as a state intent on dismantling the post-1945 international order and embracing a ‘militarist’ defence policy reminiscent of the 1930s. 

For South Korea, the preoccupation with the ‘comfort women’ issue is less clearly instrumental and appears to be grounded more in personal distrust on the part of Korean elites as well as public opinion about Japan’s regional aspirations. President Park Geun-hye has placed trust at the heart of her foreign policy agenda. Her reluctance to meet Prime Minister Abe bilaterally appears to reflect her personal belief that some senior Japanese politicians are disingenuous when they express remorse for Japan’s wartime aggression. 

For their part, Japan’s leaders – both Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida – have reiterated their commitment to the 1995 statement of the then prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, with its unambiguous reference to Japan’s ‘colonial rule and aggression’, and Murayama’s ‘deep remorse’ and ‘heartfelt apology’ for the ‘mistaken policy’ that led to war and suffering in Asia. 

In spite of these seemingly clear-cut statements, Japan’s government remains vulnerable on the history issue, primarily because of the impression, not just in Seoul and Beijing but also within the Western media, that its position is inconsistent. For example, senior politicians from Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party have publicly questioned the historical details surrounding specific Japanese wartime atrocities, and have called for a less ‘masochistic’ form of national history. 

Abe himself has implied that the precise wording of the Murayama statement may need changing. Through his 2013 visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, he has appeared sympathetic to a more nationalist agenda. At the very least, the prime minister is guilty of being politically tone deaf to regional sensibilities – something that increasingly frustrates US policy-makers eager to avoid the inflammation of tensions between Japan and its neighbours. Abe’s decision to convene a panel to explore how best to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, while promoting Japan’s future diplomatic role, has reinforced regional fears that this is cover for a soft-pedalling on Japan’s wartime’s record. 

Resolving the history stand-off will not be easy. Japanese leaders show signs of losing patience with their South Korean and Chinese counterparts, whom they see as too willing to use history opportunistically to boost their standings with their domestic publics. This argument is superficially plausible but overlooks the degree to which emotion and a genuine sense of grievance sometimes shape the actions and statements of individual politicians. 

Substantive improvement in trilateral relations requires progress in two key areas. First, the media in all three countries need to be more transparent and inclusive of a broader range of opinion, both domestic and foreign. This is especially important given indications in both Seoul and Tokyo that independent news organizations have become increasingly caught up in the public diplomacy battle between the three countries. Two examples reflect this troubling trend: South Korea’s decision to indict a Japanese Sankei Shimbun journalist for allegedly disseminating false rumours about the personal life of President Park; and recent conservative Japanese criticism of Asahi Shimbun, a progressive Japanese newspaper, for reporting errors relating to the ‘comfort women’ issue. 

Second, individual leaders need to end the empathy deficit that prevents them from recognizing the commonalities underpinning the historical experiences of their respective countries. Whether in the form of China’s ‘century of humiliation’, Korea’s collective memory of having its fate determined by the intervention of external powers, or Japan’s sense of the unique suffering imposed by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all three countries share a common culture of victimization. Recognizing this shared identity may help to alleviate tensions in the long term; in the short term, progress is likely to come from continued dialogue, sensitivity to the substance and tone of official statements, and patient practical cooperation by all three countries.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback