A Japanese Perspective

"Reassessing the Park-Xi Summit"


For understandable reasons, the Japanese paid rapt attention to the July 2014 Seoul summit between China and South Korea. Perhaps, the most compelling reason was to see what stance the two would take on issues concerning Japan, especially the territorial and historical consciousness questions. At the prior June 2013 Beijing summit, there was implicit criticism of Japan’s response to historical consciousness issues, and many waited to find out if the level of criticism would be raised or lowered. A second reason was to find out how China would take note of the security issue on the South Korean side. Precisely at that time, in the South China Sea, China’s confrontations with the Philippines and Vietnam were intensifying, which aroused the attention of some Southeast Asian states and, of course, the United States, with its strong interest in this question of whether or not to increase their criticism of the Chinese government. In the midst of this, how would China respond to South Korea, an ally of the United States?

In the final analysis, the message delivered on these issues, in contrast to the outside appearance of a splendid summit meeting, cannot be said to have necessarily been clear cut. It appears that the posture adopted toward Japan was especially confusing. At the July 3 press briefing following the summit, not a single reference to Japan was made. This was seen as a surprise not only by the Japanese media, but also by the South Korean media. It did not mean, however, that Japan was not discussed at all at the summit. After the press briefing, CCTV made it clear that Xi Jinping had proposed a joint ceremony of remembrance of the Sino-South Korean war of resistance against Japan, which in 2015 would commemorate the seventieth anniversary of China’s and Korea’s victory and of the restoration of independence. On July 4, when asked to confirm this report, the South Korean government issued a denial. Whether or not they would have this joint ceremony, Xi in his speech that day at Seoul National University put emphasis on the history of the two states’ joint struggle against Japan, and at lunch he again discussed a “memorial ceremony against Japan.” As the South Korean government made clear, in their discussions on the question of Japan’s historical consciousness, there was a feeling of joint anxiety over Japan’s continued historical revisionist attitude and (through Japan’s revision of its constitutional interpretation) over the initiative to expand Japan’s right of self-defense.

On the question of security, the message of the summit was complex. While the references to North Korea on the matter of US missile defense toward the Korean Peninsula were consistent throughout, what drew attention was the question of what position would be taken by the two countries. While they remained silent on this point right after the summit, it became clear in August from foreign ministry sources in both countries that at the summit Xi had requested South Korea to handle this issue with caution. Just before the summit, Xi had expressed the intention to achieve some sort of agreement on this point, and China then indicated through a leak after the event that it had achieved its objective. Why then, contrary to expectations, did this matter end up under some kind of cloud at the summit meeting? Something had happened in the one-year interval since last year’s summit, when this cloud had not existed. The question, of course, is what had happened.

In my personal view, there are several important points here. One, as already noted, is that during this interval the Sino-US relationship had turned in a confrontational direction. Because the Park Geun-hye administration grounds its own diplomacy in good relations with both the United States and China, the deepening opposition between them puts the South Korean government in a difficult position. Moreover, as a result of this development, there has been a tendency for the United States to forge a stronger linkage with Japan. In consideration of the presence of US military bases on Okinawa, to the degree the Sino-US confrontation intensifies, the significance of Japan, which has a relatively large military, especially a naval force, is growing in the East Asian strategy of America.

Two, a second change over the past year is the direction of the Abe administration’s nationalist policy. This policy was being revised along two separate vectors. One vector concerned the issue of historical consciousness, which refers to the Yasukuni Shrine and comfort women questions. The other vector is concerned with Japan’s military power, in the form of attempts to change the interpretation of the Constitution regarding the right of collective self-defense and the issue of Article 9. In South Korea, these types of issues were perceived as one and the same, but in the United States they were perceived as having an entirely different character. In other words, the former is an issue concerning the postwar management of an allied country and the fact that it is being provoked by the Abe administration necessarily arouses a reaction by the American government; whereas the latter is, instead, welcomed by that government, which has been seeking a more active defensive force from its ally Japan.

Thus, entering 2014, the balance of the Abe administration toward these two issues turned, little by little, in the latter direction. At first, it had explored reconsideration of the Kono statement, and in December 2013, Abe paid homage to the Yasukuni Shrine. But when 2014 began and Abe declared that he would keep the Kono statement as a quid pro quo for retracting it, at an extremely slow pace, a slight adjustment in his stance was occurring. The cabinet decision to recognize procedures for collective self-defense, which occurred just before the Sino-South Korean summit, in contrast to other actions, was welcomed by the US government.

Three, over the past year, South Korean public opinion has been solidifying. At the summit press conference, although there was no reference to Japan, it had become clear that the atmosphere in today’s South Korea sees some sort of expression of critical words concerning the historical consciousness of Japan as natural in summit diplomacy and elsewhere. The same situation applied to the South Korean media, meaning that the freedom of action by the South Korean government was restricted. Actions toward a third country, i.e., a rebuke regarding the matter of Japan’s historical consciousness, is something begun by the Park Geun-hye administration; so it can be said that this administration itself established the conditions that serve to restrain its conduct.

In these respects, the position of Seoul in Sino-South Korean relations, compared to a year earlier, was considerably more difficult. While this was natural, given the deepening Sino-US confrontation and the strengthening Japan-US relations, this had brought about a situation where Washington applied pressure on Seoul to avoid words that would further exacerbate Japan-South Korean relations. In contrast, the Chinese government clearly would benefit from distancing South Korea from the United States, and that was seen in language seeking to stop the deployment of a missile defense system on the Korean Peninsula. In order to entangle South Korea in this kind of situation, China proposed that the two jointly struggle in support of their shared historical consciousness issue. In this sense, the proposal for a joint Chinese and South Korean memorial ceremony commemorating their resistance against Japan had extremely important significance. Through this means, China simultaneously could achieve a cooperative stance against Japan with South Korea and be able to get South Korea to separate itself from other allied countries, beginning with the United States, by not recognizing itself as a member of the alliance community.

By understanding the background of this situation, we can grasp why the contents of the South Korean government’s declarations regarding relations with Japan differed from day one to day two, and also why, regarding the question of a missile defense network after the subject seemed to have been closed, a different outcome was leaked as the subtle form of a “report from Beijing of a joint communication with South Korea.” In other words, there are now issues between Beijing and Seoul regarding third parties, especially the United States, which when they get together they cannot spell out clearly. However, when the Chinese seek to make such matters public, the South Korean government cannot stop these things from eventually coming out. The fact that the South Korean public supports China in this matter means that what seemed for a time to be kept closed off, before long is brought to light before various third parties, beginning with the United States. No matter how this situation evolved, if we take the long view, this means that the South Korean government gradually will stop resisting Chinese pressure. Even if at formal press conferences, where it is important to hold the line, if it then becomes clear that the contents go beyond that, one cannot limit the big effect that this approach will have. With this in mind, as we await the APEC meetings in November when South Korea will again meet with China in front of the leaders of America and also Japan, we should be asking ourselves what kind of diplomacy will be on display.