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Calling for an Early Japan-China-South Korea Summit (The Japan Times, Mar. 6, 2015)

As this year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, I believe that Japan should take this as an opportunity to renew its pledge to build lasting peace and step up its efforts to contribute to stability and development throughout Asia. Strengthening of cooperation to address environmental problems and disaster risk reduction is a particularly urgent priority.

In November last year, the heads of government of China and Japan held their first meeting in 2½ years. Having called for normalization of Sino-Japanese relations as early as 1968, and as someone who has long sought and worked for friendship between the two countries, I was deeply gratified to see this first step toward the improvement of bilateral relations following a sustained chill.

In the wake of that meeting, the Japan-China Energy Conservation Forum was restarted in December, and consultations were held on Jan. 12 regarding the Japan-China Maritime Communication Mechanism. This mechanism can play a crucial role in preventing the escalation of any incident, and I hope that efforts to begin operation within the year as agreed to by the two leaders will proceed smoothly.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of relations between Japan and South Korea. While there is still a need to defuse political tensions between the two countries, the fact is that in recent years people-to-people interactions have continued to expand, with some 5 million people now traveling between South Korea and Japan annually. When bilateral relations were normalized in 1965, the annual figure was a mere 10,000. Although public opinion surveys reveal that large percentages of people in both Japan and South Korea do not have a favorable opinion of the other country, more than 60 percent acknowledge the importance of the relationship, a fact of considerable significance.

I also have high expectations regarding the forms of trilateral cooperation that have been steadily developing in recent years. Since the start of trilateral cooperation in the environmental field in 1999, there are today more than 50 consultative mechanisms including 18 regular ministerial meetings and more than 100 cooperative projects.

To encourage the further development of such cooperation, it is important that trilateral Japan-China-South Korea summits be renewed following the three-year hiatus brought about by heightened political tensions.

I believe such trilateral summits should be restarted at the earliest possible date to solidify the trend in improved relations, while building toward a formal agreement to make the region a model of sustainability.

Efforts should be initiated to build robust mutual trust through regional cooperation in support of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the new post-2015 targets to be adopted later this year by the United Nations.

In a significant step, Japan, China and South Korea established a Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat in September 2011. One role for this secretariat is identifying potential cooperative projects, and I hope that the three countries will work together for the advantage of all in every one of the fields set out in the SDGs.

The Third U.N. World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction is scheduled to be held in Sendai later this month, the fourth anniversary of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. Among the numerous side events, the Soka Gakkai International will be cosponsoring a symposium on "Enhancing resilience in Northeast Asia through disaster risk reduction cooperation," where civil society representatives from Japan, China and South Korea will meet to discuss regional cooperation toward disaster prevention and post-disaster recovery.

This event is being held with the support of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, and I am confident it represents the kind of positive engagement at the grass-roots level that will complement intergovernmental regional cooperation toward the realization of the new SDGs.

To reduce catastrophic damage from extreme weather events and other disasters, the sharing of lessons learned is vital. In particular, cooperation facilitated by geographic proximity contributes greatly to shared lessons and knowledge about preparedness, as neighboring countries are often exposed to similar threats. Once such cooperation begins to function fully, it can lead to enhanced regional security in terms of disaster prevention. In this sense, I reiterate my call for Japan, China and South Korea to join together to create a regional model that will embody best practices that can be shared with the world, including those relating to the development of human talent and capacity.

Key to promoting this kind of cooperation is finding ways to expand grass-roots exchanges, especially with a focus on youth. Eight years ago, a program of youth exchanges was initiated among Japan, China and South Korea, and I hope to see increased cultural and educational exchanges among high school and college students, as well as the establishment of a trilateral youth partnership through which young people can actively collaborate on efforts to realize the SDGs or other trilateral cooperation initiatives.

For individual participants, the experience of working together to tackle daunting environmental or disaster-related challenges is an invaluable one, impressing in their lives the confidence that they are creating their own future. Further, such treasures of a lifetime will without doubt build the foundation of friendship and trust that will extend far into the future.

A major expansion of sister-city exchanges between the three countries would likewise be helpful. When I met with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai some 40 years ago, our most salient shared interest was in deepening understanding and friendly relations between citizens of our two countries. Currently there are 356 local government sister-city agreements between Japan and China, 156 between Japan and South Korea, and 151 between China and South Korea. All three countries should work together to increase the number of such relationships and encourage the formation of one-to-one bonds of friendship.

It is time to take a new path, to move past traditional understandings of national interest to focus on the interests of people. I am convinced that the expansion of friendship and cooperation among the people of Japan, China and South Korea will help move the world in this direction.

[From an opinion editorial by Daisaku Ikeda carried in the March 6, 2015, issue of The Japan Times, a leading English-language daily published in Japan]