Although there has been no formal announcement whatsoever, there are clear signs that Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye may hold a trilateral summit in the capital during their visit to Jakarta and Bandung to attend the Asia-Africa’s 60th commemorative summit late next month. This would be the trio’s second encounter, after they met in Beijing in 2012.

Xi and Park have both refused to hold formal bilateral meetings with Abe, although they had met in three multilateral summits: those of Asean, G20 and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (Apec).

China and Korea have strongly pushed Japan to concede its wrongdoings during the war, while Japan argues that the reality was not as black as it is painted by its former colonial victims, and that it has repeatedly issued apologies.

The three leaders realise the need to ease tensions caused by overlapping territorial sovereignty claims on the East China Sea, as well as the North Korean nuclear issue. Military escalation in the East China Sea, especially between China and Japan, has reached a worrying level and an accidental clash could be a casus belli for more serious military confrontation.

Meanwhile, with the 70th commemoration of the end of World War II just a few months ahead, it would be a magnificent gesture for Japan to finally resolve its wartime conduct, a chronic source of tension between the former colonial master and its neighbours, especially China and Korea. PM Abe is scheduled to deliver his “final assessment” of Japan’s historical issues in World War II before the celebration.

Possible foreshadowing a future leaders’ summit, South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se is scheduled to meet his counterparts, China’s Wang Yi and Japan’s Fumio Kashia, in Seoul next week.

South Korean deputy foreign minister Lee Kyung-soo held preliminary meetings with his two counterparts in Seoul on Wednesday to make “preparations for a successful foreign ministers’ meeting, upon which we may pave ways to the next step of trilateral cooperation”.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should help the realisation of the summit as a hallmark of the event, otherwise it will be only a nostalgic reunion. During the 50th Asia-Africa celebratory meeting in 2005, then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Chinese president Hu Jintao to calm China’s anger, but the result was very limited. North Korean leader Kim Yong-nam also came to Jakarta at that time.

If they indeed meet, it would be historic. In 1955, leaders of newly independent nations such as Indonesia, India and China gathered in Bandung in the spirit of liberating all nations from colonialism and imperialism. During this year’s summit, the three countries have the chance, although it is quite unlikely, to close their history books in the spirit of “to forgive but not forget”.

President Jokowi reportedly personally conveyed his invitations to the leaders of China and South Korea during his visits to Seoul and Beijing late last year. The president is slated to visit Tokyo on March 23 for a bilateral meeting with Abe, during which he is expected to invite the prime minister to the summit.

Indonesia can do much in the position of facilitator. We are trusted by the three nations. They are vital to our economy and an easing of tensions in the East China Sea will help create a similar atmosphere on the issue of the South China Sea, although we should not be so naive as to think that diplomacy and negotiations alone are enough to achieve a more favorable atmosphere among the three powerful economies.

The most sensitive issue for the three nations will be history. The people of China and South Korea are highly emotional about Japan’s colonial history, worsened by the territorial disputes. Japan has been an important factor in “unifying” the people of the two countries, while many Japanese fail to understand their neighbours’ positions, because their history textbooks present Japan as a much more benign colonial ruler than the international community perceives.

It would be of great significance if Abe signaled a new direction in Jakarta, or at least gave clear indications of what he will announce during the 70th commemoration of World War II this August.

Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a friendly suggestion to Japanese leaders to follow her country’s path in resolving wartime wrongs.

“There was acceptance in Germany to call things by their name,” she said, praising the “generous gestures by our neighbours” in accepting postwar Germany, reports said.

Is Japan willing to listen to Merkel’s advice? But her remark also applies to Japan’s neighbours. There should be willingness from their sides to fully forgive, and to make peace with the past.

Let us hope that Abe will not miss the opportunity in Jakarta. President Xi and president Park can then tell their people, “let us move forward”.

By arrangement with The Jakarta Post-Asia News Network

Published in Dawn March 17th , 2015

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