China hosts Japan, S. Korea ministers in bid to smooth row

Christopher Bodeen
Associated Press

Beijing – The foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea met in Beijing on Wednesday as they sought to encourage progress on North Korean denuclearization at a time of tense relations between Tokyo and Seoul over trade.

In talks with Japan’s Taro Kono and South Korea’s Kang Kyung-wha, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China will work with the two countries to maintain multilateralism and free trade and commit to the region’s stability.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, center, holds hands of his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha, left, and Japanese counterpart Taro Kono for photos ahead of their meeting in Beijing Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019.

China also used the trilateral meeting to reiterate its opposition to either Japan or South Korea playing host to new U.S. intermediate-range ballistic missiles that Washington plans to deploy to the region as soon as possible after leaving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty earlier this month. China has threatened to punish any country that does so, and Chinese state media said Wang brought up the issue in separate meetings with Kono and Kang on Tuesday.

The meetings also gave Japan and South Korea a chance to hold bilateral talks on easing their recent tensions.

Ties between Japan and South Korea have been strained since Japan tightened export controls on key materials for South Korea’s semiconductor industry and decided to downgrade the nation’s trade status.

Seoul accuses Tokyo of weaponizing trade to retaliate for political rows over wartime history. The row threatens to upset economic security in Northeast Asia, as well as Washington’s hopes for military cooperation between its two treaty allies.

While Taro called for cooperation among the three despite the feud, Kang attacked Japan over its export controls, according to Japanese news reports. At a news conference, however, both sides appeared eager to downplay the dispute.

“It is inevitable that sometimes the bilateral relations among us have some difficulties,” Kono said. “The three of us have important responsibility for the stability and prosperity of the region and the whole world and the cooperation among us will definitely make major contributions in this regard.”

Kang said the Japan-South Korea dispute shouldn’t be allowed to affect trilateral relations.

“In order that the three-way cooperation can be developed in a stable way without being affected by the bilateral relations, we should enrich the contents of the exchanges among the three countries and let the people of the three countries feel the benefit from such cooperation,” Kang said.

Despite their close economic interdependence, ties between the three have often been fraught over trade frictions, the role of the U.S. and lingering resentment over Japan’s colonial legacy and World War II aggression.

China and South Korea only recently began healing ties after Beijing exacted painful economic retaliation on Seoul over its decision to host a powerful U.S. missile defense system.

China and Japan meanwhile are enjoying an unusually calm period in their often-turbulent relationship, which was at a breaking point a few years ago due to a dispute over East China Sea islands controlled by Japan but claimed by China, and Japanese objections to Chinese extraction of natural gas from an undersea bed that spans their two exclusive economic zones.

During their bilateral meeting, Kono raised the East China Sea issue with Wang, saying “substantive progress” on Japanese concerns over the two issues was necessary “for the stable development of our bilateral relationship,” Jun Saito, Kono’s spokesman for the China trip, said at a news briefing.

Saito said Kono expressed his deep concern about the situation in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protesters have been facing off against police for more than two months.

“He expressed his strong expectations that the situation will become under control as soon as possible and he said he considered it important that under ‘one country, two systems,’ a free and open Hong Kong should enjoy prosperity,” Saito said.

China is deeply sensitive to any critical foreign commentary on the situation in the former British colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, and while Saito said Wang responded to Kono’s remarks, he declined to provide further details. Hong Kong is home to a large expatriate population, including 25,000 Japanese citizens.

A statement from China’s foreign ministry said Wang responded to Kono’s remarks by saying China brooked no foreign interference in Hong Kong but understood foreign countries’ concerns about the safety of their citizens and investments and was determined to maintain the territory’s stability and prosperity under the “one country, two systems” framework.

“We believe the government of the special administrative region can maintain (foreign nationals’) proper legal rights. All sides should understand and support the special region government in stemming violence and chaos using the law and take an objective and fair stance on this,” Wang was quoted as saying.

Kono also would not go into detail about Wang’s comments on the issue of basing U.S. intermediate-range missiles, saying that was a question for the Chinese side to answer. He said the sides also discussed arrangements for a state visit to Japan by Chinese President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping next year.

Saito said the sides discussed the need for North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, and that Kono stressed that negotiations between the United States and North Korea “should be backed up.”

China is North Korea’s most important ally and has argued that steps by the North depend on security assurances from Seoul and Washington.

Associated Press writer Yanan Wang contributed to this report.