A photograph taken in the South Korean port of Busan on Sunday, November 26 shows three Asian foreign ministers standing in a row in a sign of friendship. In the background was another crucial figure: the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.
Mr Blinken did not go to Busan in person. But, on the stroke of midnight in Washington on November 25, he made a call on a secure line. He spoke with Japan’s foreign minister, Yoko Kamikawa, and her South Korean counterpart, Park Jin.
Mr Park has extensive experience working with senior American politicians and diplomats. Minister Kamikawa is relatively new in her role, having only taken up the job in September. However, she has already met Mr Blinken in both New York and Tokyo.
The Asian foreign ministers recognize the steadfast commitment of their United States ally to a “free and open Indo-Pacific." They are keen to seek Mr Blinken’s advice on how to handle China. He informed them that there is no objection on the part of the United States to taking diplomacy up to the highest level possible.
Upgrading the Level of Talks
On Sunday, November 26, Mr Jin announced that a leaders’ summit involving Chinese President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol will take place “as soon as mutually convenient.” That is according to the Yonhap News Agency.
No date or location has yet been announced.
Ms Kamikawa also said that Japan and China will seek to hold high-level talks on the economy. This will be welcome news to Xi Jinping, who is seeking international support at a time of slowing growth. Exports are in decline, and many international companies fear China is a dangerous place to operate.
Senior executives in Japan are aghast that several people on their staff have been detained in China on spurious charges relating to allegations of espionage.
Display of Force
President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida each separately met Xi Jinping at the APEC summit in California in mid-November. The event presented an opportunity to talk to him in a cordial way and highlight areas of concern.
While there are skeptics, Mr Biden believes the US-China relationship is improving. He described the meeting in San Francisco as leading to “some of the most constructive and productive discussions we’ve had.”
Alongside the diplomatic activity, there has also been a show of force.
The US has repeatedly told Xi Jinping not to contemplate an invasion of Taiwan, warning it would be extremely costly for China and dangerous for the world.
Over the weekend of November 25t-26, an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, took part in drills alongside the navies of South Korea and Japan.
Containing Kim Jong Un
They are trying to de-risk the China relationship. As well, the US, Japan, and South Korea are also coordinating their efforts to contain the threat from North Korea. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that the North’s ballistic missile launches are unprecedented in frequency. They “constitute a grave and imminent threat to regional security.” Moreover, they “pose a clear and serious challenge to the international community.”
In Busan, Park Jin asked his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi to play a constructive role in pressing North Korea to stop additional provocations. This is also in the common interest of Beijing and Seoul, he told Wang.
Wang Yi replied that China has "always played and will continue to play a constructive role" in easing the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
He said Beijing is ready to work with Tokyo and Seoul. His aim is to “put three-way cooperation back on the correct path and seek its sound and stable development.”
Wang Yi told Ms Kamikawa that both sides should make clear they "do not pose a threat to one another." Meanwhile, he said, they should respect "each other's legitimate concerns."
Yet despite his seniority, Wang Yi has little scope to act autonomously. He is obliged at all times to display unwavering loyalty to Xi Jinping, or risk being purged. That was the fate that befell Qin Gang, his predecessor. Qin was removed from his post without an official explanation earlier in 2023.
In August of 2023, China imposed a ban on seafood from Japan, claiming that it was contaminated with radioactivity because of the release of ALPS treated water from the decommissioned Fukushima reactor. Tests have shown there is no risk to human health. In Busan, Ms Kamikawa said she is seeking an immediate end to China's seafood ban.
There appears to have been progress.
"Recognizing there are differences in our respective positions, we have agreed to try to find ways to resolve issues through consultations and dialogue in a constructive manner based on what was agreed between Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week [in California],” said Ms Kamikawa.
Separately, she also confronted the South Korean delegation over a recent judgment at a South Korean court. That court ruled that the government of Japan should pay financial compensation to South Koreans. It came in a case involving the long-standing dispute over the treatment of so-called “comfort women'' during the colonial period, which ended in the middle of the 20th century. The court did not mind that Japan is a sovereign state. Nor did it heed the bilateral settlements of this issue in the past, which Japan views as final.
Ms Kamikawa described the court's order as "extremely regrettable." She also asked Seoul to take appropriate measures to resolve the issue.
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Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent
Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his articles and essays on JAPAN Forward