Premier Li Keqiang had a busy last week, hosting German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her eighth visit to China, overseeing the signing of a $17-billion Airbus deal and, in-between, knocking down large pints of non-alcoholic beer with her.
But as Li flew to Seoul on Saturday to take part in a rare – the first in three years – summit-level three-way talks with South Korea and Japan, he would have been aware that it will also be a very busy, if not tense, weekend.
Just getting the three top leaders from East Asia – Li, President Park Geun-hye and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe – in one room would be a positive for the region, divided sharply as it is over violent past and current territorial disputes in regional seas.
Earlier on September 3, Park was seen conspicuously standing by the side of President Xi Jinping – Russian President Vladimir Putin was holding the other side – during the high-profile military parade with missiles and doves at Tiananmen Square. The military parade celebrated the end of World War 2 and Japan’s defeat.
The anti-Japan rhetoric in China preceding the parade had reached a crescendo. The state-controlled media, both print and television, went on an overdrive in talking about the atrocities committed by an imperialist Japan during its occupation of China.
Abe, considered to be hawkish in his political-diplomatic style, is also seen as a Japanese leader in no hurry to apologise about the atrocities committed both in China and the Korean peninsula in the middle of the last century.
Park, according to an official statement, told Li on Saturday that she hopes cooperation among the three countries will resume after this weekend’s talks.
Park will separately meet Abe on Monday in her first formal one-on-one meeting with him since her inauguration in early 2013.
Then there is the ongoing dispute between the two Asian giants over the ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.
The focus of the talks later on Sunday, therefore, is likely to be the possible smoothening of the coarse texture of Beijing-Tokyo ties.
“A negative, hostile atmosphere prevailed in the past, but they’re now paving the way for better dialogue. That’s the biggest meaning of this trilateral summit,” Bong Youngshik, a senior researcher at Seoul’s Asian Institute for Policy Studies, told Associated Press.
According to official statements, Li and Park signed 17 bilateral business contracts and governmental accords in several areas including trade and economy, science and technology, environmental protection and people-to-people exchanges.
In his five-pronged proposal for closer ties, Li called on the two nations to build up synergies between their own development strategies so as to create new highlights in their already-close cooperation.
In focus during Sunday’s tri-lateral talks will also be East Asian integrity as proposed by China with Li expected to back efforts to facilitate negotiations for the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral free trade zone (FTZ) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to better connect the region.
The three big economies in East Asia started the FTA negotiations in November 2012, discussing commodity trade, services and investment, according to state media.
The next round of such negotiations which is scheduled at the end of this year might include talks on commodity tariff reduction and services market access.