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Politics

Now is the time to pursue a China-Japan-South Korea summit

Leaders are indicating a desire to improve ties. The momentum must not be lost

Left to right, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Photo of Moon by Kyodo)

South Korean President Moon Jae-in's recent visit to China, his first since taking office, included neither a joint communique nor a joint press conference. This is despite the fact that he was received as a state guest and held talks with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing on Dec. 14. Never-theless, it seems clear that this meeting was a top diplomatic priority for South Korea.

The focal point of Moon and Xi's summit was the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile system to U.S. forces stationed in South Korea. While Washington and Seoul argue that the U.S. system is intended to counter attacks from North Korea, Beijing has angrily rebuked its deployment as a serious threat to Chinese national security.

The THAAD issue has soured Chinese-South Korean relations in recent months.

In addition to effectively banning group tours to South Korea, China has also launched "economic retaliation" against South Korean companies. These moves have dealt a serious blow to the South Korean economy, as the country ships roughly 25% of its exports to China. Moon's visit to Beijing was able to take place only after Seoul promised to suspend any further deployment of the THAAD system.

At their summit, Moon showed great -- some might even say excessive -- consideration for Beijing. Seoul had arranged for its ambassador in Beijing to attend an official memorial ceremony in Nanjing on Dec. 13 to mark the 80th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, in which a number of Chinese people were killed after Japan's Imperial Army seized the city. Moon, at his meeting with Xi, expressed his condolences for those killed.

The U.S. THAAD missile defense system, seen here at a golf course in Seongju, South Korea, is a major sticking point between Seoul and Beijing.   © AP

As for North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs, Moon and Xi agreed on certain principles, such as a refusal to accept war on the Korean Peninsula and the resolution of all issues peacefully through negotiations. This is apparently an attempt to check the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has indicated its readiness to use force.

Yet China and South Korea remain divided over the anti-missile defense system, and the diplomatic welcome extended to Moon during his state visit was of a low level. It is premature to expect that the summit, which Xi referred to as "an important opportunity for improving relations," will put the two countries on the path toward mending diplomatic fences. Still, China should immediately halt its use of economic retaliation to pressure South Korea.

Regardless of the outcome of Moon's trip to Beijing, Seoul was determined to have the president visit China before taking part in a trilateral summit hosted by Japan. With that visit now accomplished, there are no longer any hurdles to South Korea joining the three-way summit. Considering that Xi refrained from making a speech at the memorial ceremony in Nanjing -- a sign that Beijing hopes to improve relations with Japan -- it seems reasonable to expect that China will have no problem sending Premier Li Keqiang to participate in the summit.

Japan, too, must urgently repair ties with China and South Korea. We hope the Japanese government will appeal to the two countries to hold a trilateral summit soon after the start of the new year.

Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the peace and friendship treaty between Japan and China. It has been many years since a South Korean president has visited Japan. Hopefully Japan will be able to host a three-way summit with China and South Korea as soon as possible and make it a first step toward building better relations with the two nations. Closer communication between the three countries is also essential to address North Korea's nuclear and missile ambitions.

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