Wary of Being Left Out, Japan Will Host Chinese and South Korean Leaders

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, second from right, met with King Abdullah II of Jordan, right, and Crown Prince Hussein in Amman on Tuesday. Mr. Abe faces significant challenges in the Korea talks.

TOKYO — A blistering pace of meetings to discuss the prospects for peace on the Korean Peninsula will continue next week in Tokyo, when Japan hosts a meeting with leaders from China and South Korea.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on Tuesday during a visit to Amman, Jordan, that he would host President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Premier Li Keqiang of China in Tokyo on May 9.

The meeting would put Japan back into the diplomatic fray after it had looked increasingly isolated, with the primary discussions about North Korea progressing without it. Mr. Abe had spent the past year cultivating a close relationship with President Trump and hewing to the United States’ hard-line approach to North Korea, only to be caught by surprise when Mr. Trump abruptly accepted an invitation to talk with the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

“A trilateral summit in Tokyo is an opportunity for Abe to reassert himself in fast-moving regional politics in a way that does not depend on his relationship with the U.S. president,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior research scholar at Yale Law School who writes about security in Asia.

Speaking in Amman, where Japan announced grants of up to 1.63 billion yen, about $15 million, to help Jordan support an influx of Syrian refugees, Mr. Abe said he planned to discuss “all aspects of the future development of relationships between Japan and China, and Japan and South Korea” at the meeting next week. He added that he would push for more “concrete actions” from North Korea to flesh out the commitment to denuclearization that Mr. Kim discussed with Mr. Moon in historic talks in the border village of Panmunjom last Friday.

Of the three leaders convening in Tokyo next week, Mr. Abe, who has lately been dogged by influence-peddling scandals at home, is perhaps most in need of a domestic boost. Undoubtedly, all three leaders will want to talk about advancing the North Korean peace process. But the unusual personality and style of President Trump is an equally urgent topic.

“A lot of the stimulus for this diplomacy in northeast Asia is certainly the North Korean threat,” said Mireya Solis, co-director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. “But they are also dealing with this president, who is in so many ways changing the parameters of U.S. foreign policy.”

The meeting will provide an opportunity for the three leaders to discuss commercial ties, at a time when the United States is threatening a trade war with China and has recently renegotiated a two-way trade agreement with South Korea.

It will be the first visit to Japan by Mr. Moon since he was elected president last May, and the first visit to Tokyo by a South Korean president in more than six years. Mr. Li would be the first Chinese premier to visit Japan in eight years.

With the region’s dynamics shifting rapidly, Mr. Abe will not be in the driver’s seat. He has been looking to secure a meeting with Mr. Li in the hopes of visiting Beijing this summer and ultimately hosting President Xi Jinping in Tokyo before the end of the year.

But China has dragged its feet in agreeing to set dates.

“Whenever Japan would call they were basically saying ‘Well, we’ll check our schedule book and get back to you,’” said J. Berkshire Miller, a senior visiting fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.

And South Korea, which had typically been a backseat player in northeast Asia, is now emerging as a leading broker of the North Korean peace negotiations.

“Traditionally it was really Japan and China leading, with South Korea being the shrimp between two whales,” Mr. Miller said. “But now you have the scenario where, after the Kim-Moon summit, both sides will be very actively talking to President Moon to understand what’s happening on the Korean Peninsula. It’s an interesting change of scenario.”

At next week’s summit, the challenge for Japan is to establish a significant role for itself in the diplomatic gyrations.

“The biggest source of tension is really what role Japan can play in this process,” said Tobias Harris, an expert on Japanese politics at Teneo Intelligence in Washington. “China is North Korea’s backstop, and they might nudge North Korea in the direction of constructive concessions that lower the temperature. Obviously South Korea is playing this role of drawing North Korea out and almost in some ways speaking on behalf of North Korea before much of the world. But it’s not quite clear what Japan’s role in all of this is going to be.”

Japan clearly has its own agenda of ensuring that Mr. Trump does not agree to a deal that would accept North Korea giving up intercontinental ballistic missiles and future nuclear tests while retaining short- and medium-range missiles that could still hit Japan.

In talking with South Korea and China, Mr. Abe will want to make sure his country does not get “dragged along with relaxing sanctions because it’s facing pressure from China, South Korea and the U.S. to play a good sport and support an agreement” without protecting Japan’s interests, Mr. Harris said.

Mr. Abe is also particularly keen to reach some kind of resolution for the families of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean spies four decades ago, and will undoubtedly reiterate his request for support from South Korea.

And in hopes of continuing a trend toward warmer ties with China, Mr. Abe will host separate one-on-one talks with Mr. Li during his visit to Tokyo next week.

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