East Asia's Game of Thrones
Can Beijing Mend Ties With Japan and South Korea?

The foreign ministers of Japan, China, and South Korea are set to hold what will be, to put it mildly, a busy and contentious meeting this week. Reuters reports:

Last month, a senior Japanese official said Japan was considering hosting the annual trilateral meeting in August, but a flare-up in Sino-Japanese tension over the territorial dispute stoked worry the talks might not take place.

Ties between China and Japan became strained after numerous Chinese coastguard and other government ships sailed near the disputed islets in the East China Sea.

Besides the row over the islands, ties between Japan and China have also been strained by the South China Sea dispute, with Japan urging China to adhere to a ruling by an international court that invalidated China’s territorial claims there. China warned Japan not to interfere.

South Korea and Japan have a territorial dispute over small islands about half way between their mainlands.

The meeting comes amid escalating tension between South Korea and China over a decision by Seoul and Washington to deploy an advanced anti-missile defense, which the allies say is meant to counter growing threats from North Korea.

China, of course, hopes to improve relations with its neighbors, to persuade Seoul not to move forward with the THAAD deployment, and to get Tokyo to back down in the East China Sea. In the current environment, all of those objectives seem far off—at best.

Japan has been fortifying its defenses in the East China Sea, Abe just appointed a hawkish foreign minister, and remilitarization keeps surfacing as a live issue. Japan, in other words, doesn’t look like it’s ready to get cozier with Beijing. On the contrary.

Meanwhile, South Korea won’t trust China if China doesn’t keep North Korea controlled. With Pyongyang firing missiles and developing more sophisticated technologies, despite years of Chinese assurances South Korea is as wary as ever about Beijing’s intentions.

It may be that there are areas of common ground for these East Asian powers, but China’s “Smile North, Kick South” strategy hasn’t been working very well and seems unlikely to work much better soon. Dialogue is good and important, and we’re glad Beijing and Tokyo and Seoul are keeping lines of communication open as tensions rise. But we’re not optimistic that anything substantive and productive will come out of this summit.

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