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Japan-South Korea rift

China seeks to mediate in Japan-South Korea trade spat

Foreign ministers of three nations will meet in Beijing on Wednesday

Chinese state media published an academic's commentary on Sunday that argued for Chinese arbitration in the export dispute between South Korea and Japan.   © Reuters

SEOUL/TOKYO -- In a move likely to be welcomed in Seoul but rebuffed by Tokyo, China is seeking to use its regional influence to act as a mediator in the escalating trade dispute between South Korea and Japan.

The spat over export controls will be a key agenda item when Beijing hosts the foreign ministers of the three Northeast Asian nations on Wednesday. To this end, Chinese state media published an academic's commentary on Sunday that argued for Chinese arbitration in the dispute.

"China has always played an active role in regional economic integration, which is why China could act as a mediator to help Japan and South Korea reach a compromise," Chen Youjun, a senior research fellow and director of regional economics office with the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, wrote in the Global Times. "The approach of easing their tense relationship under a trilateral FTA framework could be a way to avoid nationalist pressure inside the two countries."

Relations between Seoul and Tokyo have soured since South Korea's Supreme Court ruled in October that Japanese companies should pay reparations to Korean laborers forced to work for them during Japan's occupation of the Korean Peninsula (1910-1945). Citing national security grounds, Japan restricted exports of three key materials to South Korea in July, and followed that by excluding the country from its "white list" of trusted trading partners -- a move reciprocated by Seoul last week.

With Washington seemingly reluctant to step into the dispute between its two allies -- it has not responded to a request from Seoul for help -- China appears be looking to capitalize on weakened U.S. leadership in the region under President Donald Trump.

Last week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in used a speech to mark the 74th anniversary of the end of World War II to call for talks with Tokyo. Japan appears to be willing to discuss the issue directly with South Korea, but without third-party mediation.

Anti-Japan banners are seen at a rally in Suwon, outside of Seoul, in July. (Photo by Jean Chung )

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono will meet his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha in a separate one-on-one meeting in Beijing, according to a Japanese government source. Kono, the source said, plans to discuss the trade issue with Kang, but not in the main meeting that includes China.

Japan is wary of China acting as a mediator, and does not intend to cede any ground on the export controls or the issue of the lawsuits against Japanese companies in South Korea, said the person, who asked not to be named.

Tokyo is also concerned that allowing third-party mediation, even by Washington, could pressure it into making concessions. China showing understanding of South Korea's position on historical issues is also a worry for Japan, the source said.

South Korea's foreign ministry has not responded to requests for comments for this article.

But South Korea may welcome Chinese involvement, as it may be able to form a common front with its larger neighbor on historical issues, according to Lee Chanwoo, associate professor of Teikyo Junior College in Tokyo.

Lee, however, sees Chinese mediation having little impact on bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo.

"The three countries have different priorities and do not have strong enough an incentive to work together on the Japan-Korea trade dispute," Lee said ."China is consumed in the trade dispute with the U.S. and does not wish to do anything that would jeopardize its improving ties with Japan."

Nikkei staff writer Koya Jibiki in Tokyo contributed to this article

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