China and Japan continue to go back and forth in the run-up to the APEC Leaders’ Summit in Beijing on November 10 and 11. Before leaving on Wednesday to attend an Asia-Europe meeting in Milan, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters he hoped to meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who is also attending the summit. Referring to the APEC summit, Abe said, “In terms of talks with China and South Korea, I hope I will have a chance to chat.” The prime minister has been very optimistic, and apparently sincere, in his attempts to speak with other regional leaders. He told the Diet during his opening session speech that “the peaceful development of China is a great opportunity for Japan… I intend to realize a summit meeting at an early time to build stable, friendly relations.”
In response to this optimism, China has made its stance relative to Abe’s overtures increasingly clear. The Chinese ambassador to Tokyo, Cheng Yonghua, said Wednesday that “the APEC summit… will be a significant opportunity…But it is also true that there are problems.” Cheng again reiterated China’s problems with Japan’s failure to recognize a dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, as well as Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine where Japanese World War II war criminals are enshrined. Abe has attempted to indirectly address this last issue by refraining from visiting the shrine during the traditional spring and fall festivals this year, and the anniversary of the war’s end in August. However, China may be looking for a more formal declaration of his intent to no longer visit the shrine – something it is not likely to receive publicly.
In direct relation to China’s concerns, 110 Japanese MPs visited Yasukuni on Friday to commemorate this fall’s four-day festival. The group was led by Hidehisa Otsuji, who said “it is odd that Japanese people are told off over doing what is also practiced in any country,” and that the visit was a “natural” way to “pay homage to those who died for the sake of their countries.” However, neither Abe nor any of his Cabinet ministers were part of the visiting group, even though the new Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Sanae Takaichi had previously said she would visit. It would appear that the Abe administration has heard China’s message and is trying to refrain from stoking tensions, at least for the time being.
On the Korean Peninsula, Seoul and Washington said on Thursday that they will hold “two plus two” meetings between their foreign and defense ministers in the U.S. capital next week. This is only the third such meeting at this level between the two allies since 2010. On the official agenda is the plan to discuss the delay in the transfer from the U.S. to South Korea of the wartime operational control (OPCON). While the U.S. still maintains authority over allied wartime operations on the peninsula, that power is set to transfer to Seoul by December 2015. However, South Korea remains uncertain in its ability to effectively preempt an attack from Pyongyang, and is thus intent on delaying the OPCON transfer for at least a few more years.
Finally, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who is also at the Asia-Europe Summit, has said she will continue to pursue efforts for inter-Korean dialogue. While such a statement would usually be received as just a banal repetition of standard diplomatic-speak, the North and South have engaged in two instances of high-level dialogue recently, with the highest-level military talks in seven years occurring on Wednesday. This follows the surprise visit of Pyongyang’s nominal second in command less than two weeks before. The current tempo of these high-profile visits is creating a certain degree of optimism that a larger breakthrough in relations could be possible. However, as Pyongyang’s relations with Japan have shown, hoping for improvement often leads to disappointment with North Korea.