Indonesia urged Japan and South Korea to prioritize their shared interests after tensions between the two neighbors peaked during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Bangkok on Friday.
The tension flared earlier in the day, after the Japanese government announced that it would remove South Korea from its export whitelist. The South Korean government responded in kind by removing Japan from its export whitelist.
The quarrel involves the decades-old issue of compensation for Korean forced labor during the Japanese occupation of World War II. The Japanese government did pay compensation in 1965, but many people in South Korea continue to raise the matter, demanding that some Japanese companies also compensate victims.
The two countries’ foreign ministers, who attended the Asean Plus Three (APT) meeting between the foreign ministers of the 10 member states of the regional bloc and their Chinese, Japanese and South Korean counterparts, issued strongly worded statements on their dispute.
In her statement, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha touched on the importance of the Regional Cooperation on Economic Partnership (RCEP).
“We must choose to enlarge the piece of the pie that we all share through expanding the free flow of commerce, rather than taking steps to shrink it. Unfortunately, that fundamental principle is being challenged in our own region,” Kang said.
“In this regard, I am compelled to draw your attention to the decision made by Japan just this morning to remove my country from its list of trading partners that receive comprehensive export preferential treatment in a unilateral and arbitrary manner,” she added.
She said her government was gravely concerned about the Japanese government’s decision, as it would affect about 1,000 export items from South Korea.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono responded by saying that South Korea can still enjoy equal trade status along with Asean member states.
“I have not heard any complaints from our Asean friends about our export-management measures. ROK [the Republic of Korea] has been and is going to enjoy preferred status, or equal status with our Asean friends and I don’t know what is the so-called complaint by Foreign Minister Kang. Maintaining effective export control over sensitive goods and technology from a security perspective is Japan’s responsibility as a member of the international community,” Kono said.
“Japan’s necessary and legitimate review of its export control is fully compatible with the free-trade regime, including the WTO agreement and relevant rules; you all know that. That is why we have not got any complaints from Asean countries. I don’t think there is going to be any issues concerning this,” he continued.
The two countries’ Asean counterparts responded by urging their foreign ministers to consider stability in their region.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said she raised four topics, including a response to the Japanese-South Korean dispute, during the APT meeting.
She said Indonesia called on other participants, especially Japan and South Korea, to remember how the APT was formed – through cooperation and trust among its members.
“So, communalities should be prioritized over differences. We therefore urge [all parties involved] in the very dynamic situation of the world and region not to forget to prioritize communalities,” she told reporters after the meeting, referring to the tensions between the two neighbors.
She said countries participating in the APT managed to overcome the 1998 Asian financial crisis because of their strong resilience, but added that this resilience cannot remain without member states’ efforts to maintain it.
“Indonesia highlighted that trust and friendship must be maintained, so we can send a signal to the world that APT countries can, through trust, friendship and the promotion of communalities, respond to new challenges in the region and the world. Because we know these APT countries [Japan and South Korea] are economic powerhouses in the region,” Retno said.
Call for Dialogue
Separately, on the sidelines of Asean ministerial meeting on Friday, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang again expressed her country’s strong regret of the Japanese government’s decision to remove its close neighbor from its export whitelist.
She urged Japan to immediately reverse the decision. In a press conference with South Korean media in Bangkok in the afternoon, Kang called for dialogue with Japan to end the dispute and ease tensions between the two countries.