TOKYO (AP) — They've stayed apart for more than three years, divided by antagonisms dating back to before World War II. Now the leaders of Japan, South Korea and China hope to find political common ground despite those differences at their upcoming three-way summit.
Trade ministers from the Northeast Asian economic powerhouses met Friday, presumably to ensure the leaders will have something to show for their meeting Sunday in South Korea's capital, Seoul. Japanese officials say they hope to make progress on economic, environmental and other issues.
Leaders from the three countries conducted five annual summits beginning in 2008, but this is the first since Japan's hawkish prime minister, Shinzo Abe, took office in December 2012.
Tensions between Japan and the other two countries, already deteriorating due to wartime history and territorial disputes, took a sharp turn for the worse in late 2013 after Abe visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 2.5 million war dead, including executed war criminals.
Abe's insistence on paying homage at the shrine, in person or by sending offerings, has angered China and South Korea. So does his stance denying that there is any proof Japan's wartime military systematically forced Korean women to serve as prostitutes.
Abe hasn't yielded on those issues, but experts say the three countries share an understanding that it's about time to meet, and all have made some compromise. Abe was forced to abandon his earlier plans to revise Japan's 1995 apology over its wartime aggression and an earlier apology to so-called "comfort women," following repeated protests by Beijing and Seoul.
Washington wants Japan and South Korea, important allies in the region, to be on better terms to counter China's growing geopolitical influence. All three countries face a common concern over North Korea and its nuclear program. And the three big economies have shared interests in keeping the region on an even keel.
Sunday's meeting is seen at best as an ice-thawing first step.
"None of them wants to be seen stonewalling the cooperation," said Shin Kawashima, a University of Tokyo professor of international studies. They all have soft spots "so they want to find a comfortable middle ground," he said. Tokyo wants to avoid history, Seoul doesn't want Washington to think it's getting too close to China, and Beijing can't be too friendly to Japan for domestic political reasons.
Abe might view a successful summit as a feather in his cap, though he is viewed elsewhere as the leader most responsible for the long gap in the summits, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan. "So the fact that the other two nations have become reasonable and willing to compromise, I wouldn't say marks a great victory for Tokyo," he said.
Below is a summary of the positions of the three sides involved in the summit:
VIEW FROM JAPAN:
Japan's invasion of China and colonization of the Korean Peninsula during the first half of the 20th century remains a sore point. While conflicting territorial claims over islands in the East China Sea overshadow other historical issues between Tokyo and Beijing, resentment over wartime sexual exploitation of Korean women by Japan's Imperial Army troops still sours Japan-South Korea relations.
Tokyo sees Beijing's growing power as a security threat, but the two biggest Asian economies have sought to develop a trade-focused partnership to shore up fragile relations.
Since his December 2013 visit to Yasukuni, Abe has toned down his own nationalist rhetoric and has met with Chinese President Xi Jinping three times. But Abe has yet to hold full bilateral talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who had refused to meet without Japan's resolution on the Imperial Army's exploitation of women. Brief bilateral talks between Abe and Park are set for Monday.
Abe has said he is ready to discuss a wide range of issues, including "comfort women." Despite his revisionist reputation, Abe has promised to inherit the 1993 apology over the Japanese military's past exploitation of women and recently expressed sympathy over the women's suffering as victims of human trafficking. In his statement for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Abe avoided making own apology but promised to inherit his predecessors' "deep remorse" over Japan's aggression. Officials in Tokyo say there is no further change to Japan's position on those issues.
Media surveys show public sentiment in Japan has turned cold toward its neighbors, but tourism flourishes on a surging influx of Chinese visitors.
VIEW FROM CHINA:
China sees the meeting in Seoul as another step in its slow resumption of exchanges with Japan following a 2012 flare-up over control of disputed islands in the East China Sea.
The rift began healing last November when diplomats agreed to restart contacts and Xi met briefly with Abe in Beijing. The two leaders shook hands, and have met twice since.
China's relations with South Korea are much warmer. Park broke ranks with other democratically elected leaders to attend a lavish military parade in Beijing last month.
Along with maintaining close trade ties, China is working with South Korea in hopes of reopening dialogue with North Korea on curbing its nuclear program.
China will be represented at Sunday's summit not by Xi but by the less powerful premier, Li Keqiang, who is in charge of economic issues. Li also meet with Park on Saturday.
Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters on Monday that Beijing wants to revive stalled talks on a three-way trade deal between the sides.
VIEW FROM SOUTH KOREA:
As host, Park must balance her country's need for good economic and diplomatic ties with neighbor Japan and the deep mistrust many Koreans feel for Abe, who is seen as persistently seeking to whitewash Japan's wartime atrocities.
So far, Park has avoided direct formal talks with Abe, while cooperation at lower levels has continued, even if it's been strained. Park's decision to meet with Abe now may reflect a grudging acceptance of the need for better ties with the other strong U.S. ally in the region.
Officials in Seoul say that during their meeting on Monday, Park certainly will press Abe on the "comfort women" issue, which still festers with perennial protests, and occasional attacks, on the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
Analysts say any high-level talks could help, but they expect no breakthroughs.
Wariness and resentment will likely persist, South Korea's biggest daily, the Chosun Ilbo, said this week in an editorial titled "Japan Needs Keeping in Close Check."
"Abe knows that the U.S. government needs Japan as an ally to keep China in check and believes he can push Korea around with Big Brother by his side," it said.
Associated Press writers Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Foster Klug in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.