Seoul officials are likely to be on alert over China’s recent moves to ease its diplomatic conflict with Japan. It appears that momentum is building up for bilateral talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing in November.
If realized, the Xi-Abe summit could lead to normalizing the strained relationship between their countries and changing the geopolitical landscape in Northeast Asia. Coupled with Tokyo’s recent conciliatory approach toward Pyongyang, this might further complicate the diplomatic position of South Korea, whose ties with Japan and North Korea have remained frozen over the past years.
In late July, Xi met with former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who made a secret visit to Beijing on an apparent mission to seek a breakthrough in the prolonged conflict between China and Japan. The meeting was seen as a signal that Beijing may be backpedaling from its position that a bilateral summit will be considered only when Japan changes its attitude toward territorial and historical issues with China.
The foreign ministers of the two countries held a one-on-one meeting during a regional security forum in Myanmar in August. Attention is now being drawn to a visit to Japan later this month by the head of China’s external friendship association, who is regarded as one of Xi’s close friends.
China also took steps last month toward settling its territorial dispute with Vietnam over a set of islands in the South China Sea.
In immediate terms, the latest moves by Beijing to improve ties with neighboring powers are seen as being motivated by the need to forge favorable conditions for the upcoming APEC summit to be hosted by Xi. More fundamentally, the shift in China’s diplomatic stance seems to reflect its concern that strained relations with all its neighbors ― except for South Korea ― would hamper its efforts to counter the U.S. rebalancing to Asia. Xi may feel an increasing need to mend China’s estranged ties with regional countries in the run-up to his summit with U.S. President Barack Obama, which will come on the heels of the APEC conference.
This change in diplomatic circumstances requires Seoul officials, who seem to have been bent on strengthening their partnership with China, to implement more flexible and sophisticated strategies for dealing with Japan and North Korea.
South Korea needs to be more proactive in holding talks with the two countries, rather than shy away from them out of concern over possible negative outcomes.