TOKYO -- Japan is unlikely to host a summit meeting with China and South Korea this year, with a standoff between Beijing and Seoul looming as a major stumbling block.
The three countries conducted their first leaders' summit in 2008 with an agreement to generally hold such gatherings annually with rotating host nations. They passed on a meeting last year when Park Geun-hye, then the president of South Korea, was dealing with a corruption scandal that eventually unseated her.
Japan now seeks to host a summit as early as January. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is giving high priority to pulling off the meeting before the Diet convenes for its regular session that month. If the three nations cannot agree to meet on that schedule, Abe would instead visit the United Arab Emirates and Southeast Asia during those weeks.
Setting the stage
During their bilateral meeting in Vietnam last month, Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed on setting up a three-way summit at an early date. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono is preparing to visit China shortly.
Tokyo views the summit as a chance to lay groundwork toward better relations with Beijing. "In order to also advance improved Japan-China relations on all fronts, I wish to first produce results" from the trilateral leaders' summit, Kono told the upper-house foreign affairs and defense committee Thursday.
Abe's government is looking to hold reciprocal official visits by the leaders of Japan and China in 2018 to mark the 40th anniversary of the nations' peace and friendship treaty. The first step is to invite the Chinese leader to Japan through a multilateral summit, which would be an easier venue than a two-way meeting on home turf.
South Korea, now under President Moon Jae-in, is eager to hold the trilateral summit as soon as possible, and for a key reason. The Koreans wish to invite Abe to the Winter Olympics they are hosting in Pyeongchang in February.
But Japan insists that Moon visit Japan first. A trilateral summit in January would serve to fulfill that prerequisite on a convenient timetable.
Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the Komeito party in Japan's ruling coalition, visited Moon in Seoul in November. There, the president said he would be happy to visit Japan, expressing his desire to hold a trilateral summit "as soon as possible."
South Korea also believes that a resolution to the North Korea tensions hinges on coordinated efforts with both neighbors. But the biggest hurdle to the summit is Seoul's frayed ties with Beijing.
China has consistently approached the three-way meetings cautiously, and it hardened its stance after South Korea decided in July 2016 to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system, which Beijing argues compromises Chinese national security.
Moon will arrive in China next Wednesday for his first state visit in a bid to thaw cooled relations. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is scheduled to travel to Japan soon after to remove potential roadblocks to the summit.
But China is demanding that South Korea not deploy additional THAAD units, or join America's missile defense system. Beijing will closely assess Moon's posture during his visit.
Meanwhile, Sino-Japanese relations are moving in a positive direction. Both sides look forward to strengthening cooperation, mainly on the economic front. In regional security, the countries confirmed progress this week toward establishing a communication mechanism for avoiding vessel collisions.
If a trilateral summit becomes a reality, China sees an opportunity to soften the "maximum pressure" approach adopted by Japan and South Korea, together with the U.S., against North Korea's nuclear and missile program. China fears such an uncompromising route would lead to an implosion of the hermit state.
However, an early summit would fall within a fairly limited time frame. Japan convenes its regular Diet session sometime in January, while South Korea opens the Winter Olympics in February. China will kick off its National People's Congress in March. If a meeting cannot be held in January, the next possible date would be in April.