Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday he is arranging to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae In later this month in China, providing another signal that Tokyo and Seoul are seeking to halt the deterioration of their bilateral ties.
Reflecting severely strained relations over compensation for wartime labor as well as trade and security issues, Abe and Moon have not held formal talks in over a year, apart from a short conversation in early November on the fringes of a multilateral gathering in Thailand.
Their upcoming meeting is expected to take place when Abe visits China from Dec. 23 to 25 for this year's trilateral summit in Chengdu with Moon and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
Last month, Japan and South Korea averted the termination of a military intelligence-sharing pact as Seoul backpedaled at the last minute on its earlier decision to scrap the agreement.
A major question will be whether Abe and Moon can set the stage for repairing ties, more than a year after South Korean courts ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation for wartime forced labor during Japan's 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
The Asian neighbors remain at loggerheads as Japan says the issue of compensation for wartime labor was already settled under a 1965 bilateral accord establishing diplomatic ties, with Tokyo providing a $500 million lump sum to Seoul as "economic cooperation."
On the court rulings, Seoul says its hands are tied because of the separation of powers.
Tokyo has been urging Seoul to follow through on the bilateral accord, while a legislative proposal has emerged in South Korea to set up a foundation worth 300 billion won ($255 million) consisting of donations from companies and individuals in both countries.
On the trade front, Japan and South Korea have agreed to hold talks at the director general level in mid-December over Tokyo's move earlier this year to tighten controls on tech-related exports.
Abe unveiled his plan to visit China during a meeting of government officials and ruling coalition lawmakers at the prime minister's office.
Prior to China, he will also travel to India from Dec. 15 to 17 for a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Abe is expected to seek enhanced cooperation in achieving a "free and open" Indo-Pacific as the two countries have been deepening economic and security ties.
Japan and India are trying to sign an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement, which would enable them to share defense capabilities and supplies including fuel and ammunition, at an early date.
But a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday the signing of the agreement during Abe's upcoming trip to India is expected to be difficult, as both sides still need more time to settle on the wording of the accord.
Abe may also visit the northeastern India city of Imphal, the site of a fierce battle between Japanese and Allied forces during World War II.