Last week was busy for the leaders of East Asia’s biggest countries — China, Japan and the Republic of Korea — and another of its biggest economies, Taiwan, as they met with one another after years of icy relations.
On November 2, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Leaders of the three had met roughly every two years since the forum was established in 1999, but it had been three-and-a-half years since the last meeting.
Later that day also was the first summit meeting in more than three years between the Japanese prime minister and the Korean president, and the first meeting ever between Prime Minister Abe and President Park.
Then on November 7, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Taiwanese President Ma Ying Jeou, the first time the presidents of China and Taiwan had ever met.
What to make of all this summitry?
First, the fact that the meetings took place is nothing but positive. As Winston Churchill once said in another context, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” Generally, if the leaders of countries are talking, more aggressive actions are reconsidered or postponed by their governments. There has been a great deal of heated rhetoric and a series of symbolic aggressive actions in East Asia recently, so a respite is welcome.
“…Leaders no longer see the value in exploiting hostility, exasperation or suspicion among their domestic constituents by refusing to meet with or visit their counterparts.”
Second, the meetings emphasized common interests to pursue and issues to solve. For example, the communiqué from the China-Japan-ROK trilateral had 56 specific items, beginning with six to “Realize Peace and Cooperation in Asia” and 18 to “Expand Economic and Social Cooperation for Co-Prosperity.” The first item from the joint statement in the Japan-ROK meeting was to “continue and further accelerate discussion on the [comfort women] issue.” Skeptics have pointed out that none of the joint statements announced agreed solutions to the issues. However, the summit endorsements will add urgency and focus to the work of the lower-level negotiators. Moreover, with the G-20 summit in Turkey, the APEC summit in the Philippines and the East Asia Summit in Malaysia all taking place this month, there will be more opportunities for leaders of the three countries to continue the dialogue. Korea and Japan already are working on scheduling another bilateral meeting of their leaders for one or more the three gatherings.
Third, the fact of the meetings means that the leaders no longer see the value in exploiting hostility, exasperation or suspicion among their domestic constituents by refusing to meet with or visit their counterparts. They recognize that their interests lie in moving issues forward, rather than freezing them.
Many thorny issues in East Asia are of vital concern to Americans — territorial disputes, economic challenges and ancient and new rivalries. However, for the first time in years, the state of relations among the countries in the region is good enough that leaders can at least meet with one another to talk about the issues.
About the expert
Adm. Dennis C. Blair is a Distinguished Senior Fellow (Non-Resident) of Sasakawa USA, and additionally led the Foundation as CEO from 2014 to February 2017. He is a renowned expert on Asia Pacific policy and issues, having served as Director of National Intelligence and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command. Read his Chairman's Message column here or his other publications and analysis here