Japan's ties with China face a litmus test in 2007 as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's honeymoon period comes to an end and the likelihood that disputes over history will return to the fore with the 70th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, officials and analysts say.
“The situation however is volatile and depends on certain variables,” Kojima, a political science professor at Keio University in Tokyo, said, referring to the dispute over Yasukuni Shrine and public sensitivity in China that may arise due to the anniversary of the 1937 massacre in Nanjing.
Abe visited China and South Korea in early October in his first overseas visits after taking office in September in a bid to mend strained ties with the two neighbors.
Sheila Smith, a Japan specialist at the East-West Center in Hawaii, praised Abe for making it a priority to thaw the chilly ties with the two neighboring nations and thereby restore a “basic cordial” conversation at the highest level.
Before Abe, ties between Tokyo and Beijing had sunk to their lowest ebb in decades, with China and South Korea halting top-level talks with Japan in part as a protest over Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni.
The Yasukuni issue, though, is not totally off the radar, government officials say. Abe, who supported Koizumi’s shrine visits and himself has paid many visits, the last in April, has been vague about whether he will go as prime minister.
For now, he will continue to pursue a strategy of leaving the issue ambiguous in consideration of Chinese and South Korean sentiments, and Beijing and Seoul appear not to be saying anything about this, one official said.
Japan and China also remain apart on several other issues, including the dispute over gas exploration rights in the East China Sea, with diplomatic sources saying talks are expected to resume early this year.
Possible visits by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao to Japan, if they go ahead this year, will be make-or-break events for Japanese diplomacy.
“It will be a challenge to the Chinese leadership to find a way of presenting their intentions to the Japanese people to have constructive relations with Japan,” Smith said.
Japan-South Korea ties, which were made testy — though to a lesser extent than were Japan-China ties — over Yasukuni, are also getting back on track and Roh’s early 2007 visit is expected to determine the direction of the relationship, according to Foreign Ministry officials.
North Korea, with the standoff over its nuclear arms and unresolved abductions of Japanese nationals, will also remain a headache.
How Japan can persuade China and South Korea to be more firm in dealing with North Korea, which conducted a nuclear test in October in defiance of the international community and remained defiant in the recent round of six-party talks, remains uncertain.
“It won’t do any good if China and South Korea do not firmly address this. It would be nice if they can respond sternly, but they have yet to halt their assistance to North Korea,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official who voiced strong dissatisfaction with Beijing and Seoul in this regard.
Tomohiko Taniguchi, the ministry’s deputy press secretary, said: “It will be difficult to crack the barrier to get the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, convinced of how important it is for the nation . . . to be more understanding of international concerns, including concerns from the Japanese perspective about the abduction issue.”
Taniguchi also expressed hope that the abduction issue — a highly emotional matter for Japan — will be addressed in an “even more serious fashion,” given that former South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon became U.N. secretary general on Monday.
“As someone who has a firsthand knowledge about the situation on the peninsula, it is also to be hoped that North Korean issues will be discussed in an even more effective way on the floor of the United Nations,” he said.
Ban assured Foreign Minister Taro Aso in October that he would pay “special attention” to the abduction issue as head of the U.N.
Smith meanwhile said it will be interesting to keep a close watch on developments in Japan in which senior lawmakers, including Aso, are calling for a debate on the possibility of Japan possessing nuclear weapons.
The North Korean threat also demonstrate something else — the importance to Japan of its bid to secure a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Another official at the Foreign Ministry admitted Japan’s bid has lost momentum compared with 2005 but said diplomacy at the U.N. stage over the nuclear standoff with North Korea has shown how advantageous it would be for Japan to be a part of the Security Council.
Japan played a key role with the United States in pushing for a sanctions resolution against North Korea after its Oct. 9 nuclear test, as Japan was at that time a nonpermanent Security Council member, the official said.
As for Japan-Russia ties, the long-standing territorial dispute over the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido is not expected to see a breakthrough anytime soon, with both nations sticking to the rhetoric of seeking “a mutually acceptable” resolution.
Japan is also eyeing strengthening ties with India.
Abe has repeatedly emphasized his desire to strengthen ties with countries, including India, that “share common values,” such as democracy, in what is seen as an attempt to keep China in check.