By Frank Ching
China, Japan and South Korea held their 10th trilateral summit meeting this month in Beijing, and reiterated their determination to move toward regional integration even though it is clear that bilateral problems remain, in particular between China and Japan.
This was the first such meeting for the new leader of Japan, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who is calling for an East Asian Community, which is also backed by the two other countries.
In a joint statement after their discussions, the three countries reaffirmed their commitment ``to the development of an East Asia community based on the principles of openness, transparency, inclusiveness as a long-term goal.''
Hatoyama had announced during the election campaign that if elected he would not visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war criminals as well as other war dead. This announcement was welcomed by both Beijing and Seoul, which strongly objected to former Japanese leaders visiting the shrine.
However, Japan still has territorial disputes with both China and South Korea, and there is little sign that these can be resolved any time soon. Japan claims the Takeshima, or Dokdo islets which are controlled by South Korea. And it controls the Senkakus, which is claimed by the Chinese and known to them as the Diaoyu Islands.
Moreover, the Beijing talks disclosed that Sino-Japanese differences over other issues that bedeviled the relationship last year, such as poisonous dumplings imported from China, have yet to be resolved.
The Senkaku-Diaoyu dispute is actually less over the tiny uninhabitable rocks than over the resources under the seabed of the East China Sea.
China and Japan signed an agreement last year that they would undertake joint development of undersea resources, but there is as yet no agreement as to where and when such exploitation should begin.
According to Japanese accounts, Hatoyama urged the start of negotiations for a treaty that would allow joint development to start.
However, his Chinese counterpart, Premier Wen Jiabao, was quoted as saying that while he hoped officials from the two countries could meet soon, he added that public sentiment in China had to be taken into consideration.
There is strong anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese population, just as there is strong anti-Chinese sentiment among the Japanese public.
On another issue, that of poisonous Chinese dumplings, the two countries have agreed to ministerial-level talks on food safety.
However, the Chinese seem unwilling to acknowledge that they were responsible for those who were sickened in Japan after eating pesticide-laced dumplings.
Wen was quoted as saying that there was still no ``conclusive evidence'' though China was willing to strengthen cooperation in the investigation.
Though this was their 10th annual meeting, it is only the second time in which the three countries have met in each other's countries ― the first time was last December in Japan.
The talks began as part of the ASEAN+3 process when the three met by rotation each year in one of the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
North Korea was high up on their agenda, especially where China was concerned. Wen had visited Pyongyang the previous week and met Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, who indicated a willingness to return to the six-party talks on condition that bilateral talks with the United States are first held.
Wen emphasized the importance of seizing the opportunity offered by North Korea's willingness to return to the talks, but Japan and South Korea also had their own agendas.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has proposed a ``grand bargain'' with North Korea under which Pyongyang would give up its nuclear ambitions in return for aid and diplomatic recognition. However, there appeared to have been little if any discussion of this idea during the summit meeting.
Hatoyama, on his part, asserted at a joint press conference that the ``grand bargain'' should include the issue of North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and the 1980s.
But Japan has made no progress with North Korea on this issue, and its inclusion in discussions on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula would make success even more elusive.
Regional integration and the emergence of an East Asian community is a long-term process. But the meeting in Beijing suggests that the three major East Asian countries are serious about it.
The fact that they have now been meeting for 10 years despite changes in government in all three countries suggests how much importance they attach to it and how determined they are to succeed.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer whose book, ``Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family,'' has just been reissued in paperback. He can be reached at Frank.email@example.com.