Intellasia East Asia News – Three leaders, three calculations

Speculation is growing about a possible trilateral meeting between South Korea, the US and Japan at the upcoming G-7 summit in the UK later this week. On Monday, Washington said it is open to the possibility even though nothing has been confirmed yet.

“We don’t currently have a trilateral scheduled between the US, Japan, and South Korea, but I will tell you there’s a possibility for virtually anything in these small spaces where you have just — you know, in this case, 10 or 12 leaders in person there in Cornwall,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told a media briefing.

US President Joe Biden, five months into office, has invested heavily in rebuilding ties with Korea and Japan, two crucial allies in the Indo-Pacific region where China has positioned itself more assertively.

Considering South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga were the first foreign leaders to visit the White House, a trilateral meeting of the leaders could be seen as a culmination of the new US president’s diplomatic efforts over the past months.

(The Korea Herald)

But strained Korea-Japan relations remain a missing link in his push to create a united front against China. Views are mixed on whether both Moon and Suga are willing to risk their political capital just for the sake of the meeting.

“Biden seems eager to hold a trilateral meeting, which itself will showcase the ironclad alliance of the three nations — a clear message to China,” said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy. “Suga may be reluctant to join but it would be difficult for him to deny Biden’s request.”

Biden: Willing to meet

A possible trilateral meeting with Moon and Suga will reaffirm Biden’s leadership in tackling regional challenges, including China and North Korea. He has put renewed emphasis on bolstering the trilateral ties from the very beginning of his term that began in January.

Seoul and Tokyo were the first destinations of his security team’s overseas trip in March, and Biden’s first in-person summit talks were with Suga in April and Moon in May.

The three nations raised a unified voice to counter a more assertive China during the multiple meetings, but some subtle discrepancies were also found. Korea, in particular, tried to distance itself from being drawn into the escalating US-China rivalry, as China is its largest trading partner.

Another burden for Biden is the prolonged diplomatic feud between Seoul and Tokyo. Despite his willingness to act as a mediator in the conflict, there seems to be little room for the role for now.

Moon: Supportive, not desperate

Moon has reiterated his willingness to rebuild ties with Japan since Suga’s inauguration in September last year. In a drastic shift in tone, he has also suggested the two nations resume talks beyond the entangled historical issues, but the response has been lukewarm so far.

Making more compromises could hurt Moon’s political capital at home in light of the sensitivity toward the Japan issues here. Fueling the anti-Japan sentiment is the Japanese government’s recent refusal to correct its map for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics that wrongly shows Dokdo as part of its territory.

During the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, South Korea removed Dokdo from its official map to maintain political neutrality even though the nation has effectively controlled the volcanic islets for decades.

Moon, in his final year in office, is seeking to make last-ditch efforts to revive diplomacy with North Korea. To pull it off, a coordinated partnership with the US is crucial. He may feel pressure from Biden to mend ties with Japan, but he has already passed the ball to Suga.

Suga: Reluctant

Suga, who has his hands full with domestic issues, may have little energy and will to respond to Moon’s overtures. His approval ratings continue to fall amid mounting criticism over his government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Tokyo Olympics.

He had hoped that being the first foreign leader to hold a face-to-face meeting with Biden could help elevate his ratings, but it had scant impact. Calls to cancel the July Olympics, which had already been postponed from last year, have only grown louder.

Japanese media says Suga has nothing to earn from a trilateral meeting, especially from a friendlier relationship with Korea, ahead of his party leadership election later this year. In Japan, the anti-Korea sentiment is sometimes helpful for the ruling conservative bloc to gain public support.

Japan has repeated that talks can resume when Korea comes up with a concrete resolution for the recurring compensation claims by Korean victims of sex slavery and forced labor during its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula in 1910-1945. But Korea has maintained its principle that the government cannot step in legal fights of individuals.

The G-7 meeting will become the first occasion for Suga and Moon to meet in person. Despite the possibility of a trilateral meeting, a bilateral one doesn’t seem to be on the cards.


Category: Japan, Malaysia

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