Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) announced today that it would convene a ‘Track II’ dialogue this weekend on wartime history issues that continue to aggravate tensions between Japan, China, and South Korea, with the goal of “offering practical ideas” to facilitate reconciliation in the area.
The 3-day gathering, which begins Sunday night with an informal dinner in the northern California Wine Country, is notable particularly because it is cosponsored by the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS), a Seoul-based organization founded by China, Japan, and South Korea in 2011 to promote “friendship and trust” between the three countries. TCS is staffed and run by foreign ministry officials from each of the three countries, with a rotating secretary-general, currently Ambassador Shigeo Iwatani of Japan.
“It is unusual to have a dialogue of this sort with people from all three countries,” says Daniel Sneider, APARC’s associate director for research. “And this has the backing of the TCS, which is significant.”
How high up the leadership chain of command in each country did the decision to participate go? Sneider says he does not know. “We can say that the decision was not made at the level of the TCS officials in Seoul alone. They are all foreign ministry officials. They have all had to refer this back to their respective home offices for approval."
So some segments of officialdom in all three countries are looking for ways to lessen tensions.
While relations between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Korean President Park Geun-hye are quite good, neither gets along well with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. Xi has never met Abe, and shows little inclination to do so. China’s foreign ministry spokesman said late last year that the Chinese leader “will never meet” with Abe. Park, meanwhile, continues to reject a bilateral summit with Abe, though she did meet with him in late March in a trilateral summit organized by US President Barack Obama.
China often uses animosity toward Japan to generate nationalist sentiment in support of the central government. And Korean public opinion and media coverage is extraordinarily sensitive to even a hint of snub from Japan, which colonized Korea from 1910-1945.
US officials say privately that both Xi and Park are leery of showing any openness toward dialogue with Abe, for fear the Japanese leader will feel emboldened to make another provocative gesture, such as last December’s visit to the divisive Yasukuni Shrine.
The prevailing mood in Beijing and Seoul is that the onus is mostly on Abe to take the first significant steps toward real dialogue.
Abe’s Yasukuni visit is a good example of how history issues continue to bedevil current diplomacy in Northeast Asia. Aside from enshrining convicted Class A war criminals, Yasukuni has an adjacent museum that advances the plot line that Japan had no choice but to “advance” into (not “invade”) China in the 1930s, and that Japan was basically forced into war with the Western nations, including the United States. The shrine and museum are rallying points for “historical revisionists” (including Abe), who tend to argue that Japan’s annexation of Korea was “legal,” that the Nanjing massacre never occurred or was minimal, and that the “comfort women” coerced into sexual servitude for Japan’s military were unfortunate victims of the sort common place in a war zone.
THE STANFORD-TCS ROLE: Since the trilateral summit at The Hague, Japanese and Korean foreign ministry officials at the director-general level have met, in an effort to try to get a dialogue going. Obama strongly pressed Tokyo and Seoul to move in this direction. US officials say Japan’s participation has been less-than enthusiastic.
Prime Minister Abe is currently on a tour of several European countries, and has shown great interest in expanded discussions between Japan and NATO on security cooperation.
Abe has not shown the same focus on improving ties with Korea, allowing his personal conviction that Japan has been unfairly singled out for criticism of its wartime behavior to block sincere efforts at reconciliation with Seoul. US officials are deeply frustrated that tension between Tokyo and Seoul only undermines deterrence and other security efforts against a very dangerous North Korea.
The Stanford dialogue is no alternative to government-government efforts, of course. But assuming the will for improved relations exists in all three capitals, the Stanford conference could conceivably help facilitate that process. If nothing else, it should provide a small indicator of willingness in Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul to begin reversing the downward trends in regional diplomacy.
The conference involves academics from all four countries, plus several from Europe familiar with postwar reconciliation between Germany and its neighbors. In many cases, participants have experience with previous, official dialogues about history between Japan and China, and, separately, between Japan and Korea.
By prior agreement, neither Stanford nor TCS has made public the names of participants.
The proceedings will begin with presentations by several American and European participants. By design, none of the Asian participants will make opening presentations. The rest of the gathering is supposed to be open, unfettered discussion, with expected full participation of the TCS officials – technically in their personal capacities.
No US government officials will participate. Sneider would not comment on why, except to say that “inside the US Government there is still a lot of hesitancy to take on anything like a mediator role.”
This weekend’s conference on wartime history issues may not be a one-time event for Stanford, which regularly delves into public policy. “APARC is an academic research institution that engages in policy-relevant research,” Sneider says. “We make our research available to policy makers, and we interact with them about the work. History issues continue to have an impact on current relations in the region, which creates an imperative to deal with them.”
In a press release, APARC Director Professor Gi-Wook shin said he hopes the Stanford dialogue “will be an ongoing process, building on previous efforts at bilateral dialogue on history issues that will go beyond this initial meeting.”