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International Relations

Japan pushes China, South Korea for 3-way summit

PM Abe hopes to score diplomatic points ahead of political events at home

The most recent trilateral summit between Japan, China and South Korea was held at South Korea's presidential Blue House in 2015.

BEIJING -- The Japanese government is making its final push to convince China and South Korea to come to the table for a trilateral summit in Japan soon.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono arrived in Beijing on Saturday, and will meet with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as well as Premier Li Keqiang and State Councilor Yang Jiechi, China's top diplomat, on Sunday.

Kono hopes to work out a specific timetable for the summit, which Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes will be a catalyst to restart reciprocal visits by the leaders of the three countries.

Abe does not have many options left for when to host the summit, given upcoming political events at home, including the leadership race for his Liberal Democratic Party in the autumn. He appears to want to use the diplomatic opportunity to improve relations with China to raise his political standing at home, where he aims to propose amendments to the constitution. But there is no guarantee Beijing will accept Tokyo's offer for a trilateral summit.

Kono is expected to directly ask Li, who would visit Japan if China agrees to the summit, to do so as soon as possible. 

Abe proposed the idea of reciprocal visits by the leaders to Chinese President Xi Jinping during a bilateral meeting in Vietnam in November. Xi said Abe's visit to China and reciprocal visits by high-level officials would be important to him.

Abe's aides say China will be the main focus this year. Improving relations with China is one of the few diplomatic initiatives that could lift support for Abe's government in Japan. Efforts to resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted to North Korea have been sidelined by the North's nuclear and missile programs. And there has been no major progress in talks with Russia over the so-called Northern Territories that it controls, but which Japan claims. There is much hope among Japanese businesses for a better Sino-Japanese relationship.

Abe faces the LDP leadership contest in the autumn, and an upper house election in the summer of 2019. He is expected to call for a national referendum on constitutional amendments in early 2019, if not sooner. He apparently believes that improving the relationship with China ahead of these domestic political events would lift the position of his government.

"I want to make this year one in which the people of both countries think that the [bilateral] relationship has improved significantly," he told his aides.

To use China diplomacy to buoy his approval ratings ahead of the leadership race and constitutional amendments, Abe would have to squeeze in his diplomatic agenda amid tight schedules in both countries. The order of events would be: a trilateral summit, Abe's visit to China, and Xi's visit to Japan.

After much delay, the Japanese government hopes to hold a trilateral summit sometime around April. The plan is to welcome Li for the first time in Japan after major political events have ended in both countries -- a parliamentary debate on the fiscal 2018 budget in Japan, and China's National People's Congress in March.

After that, Abe hopes to visit China by the autumn. It would be his first visit to the country, with the exception of international conferences, since he returned to the prime minister's office in December 2012. His aim is to visit China as part of a reciprocal visits by the two leaders, and he would invite Xi to Japan in return. Some of Abe's aides suggest Abe should visit China close to the LDP leadership race to improve his chances.

The majority view is that Abe will try to invite Xi to Japan by the end of this year, or early 2019. Xi is expected to visit Japan next year for a Group of 20 summit. Japan has not decided the specific timing of the summit, but China may delay Xi's visit to Japan until 2019 to have it on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. If that were to happen, the visit could lose much significance in terms of improving relations with Japan.

As for constitutional revision, a Japanese government official said Japan has already explained to China that Abe is not aiming to revise the war-renouncing Article 9 with China in mind. China showed understanding, the official said.

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