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Abe shows a flair for pragmatism and survival

by Frank Ching

Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will meet U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time on Friday in Washington in an attempt to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance in the face of security threats in the region, primarily from North Korea and China.

These talks will be particularly important now that China has identified “hostile United States policies” toward Pyongyang as the root cause of the North Korean nuclear problem. It has also voiced sympathy for North Korea, saying the country has a strong sense of insecurity after years of confrontation with the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

China doesn’t want to be seen as the enabler of North Korea’s nuclear program. At the same time, it continues to shield Pyongyang from international wrath by blaming the U.S. for North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Thus, while North Korea will be high on the Obama-Abe agenda, China will not be far behind. In fact, China is the main reason why Japan is so anxious to tighten its security relationship with the U.S.

One indication of their closeness was American endorsement of Japan’s claim that Chinese warships had locked weapons-guiding radar on a Japanese destroyer and on a helicopter — accusations denied by China — after Tokyo shared technical data with Washington.

The new prime minister, often labeled a hawk, has in practice behaved much like a pragmatist while in office.

In 2006, when he first became prime minister, his first overseas visit was not to Washington but to Beijing, where he successfully repaired fences badly damaged by his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who had insisted on visiting Yasukuni Shrine each year during his five-year tenure, straining relations with both China and South Korea.

Now the China relationship is again badly strained — because of a territorial dispute. It is in the worst shape since Tokyo and Beijing established diplomatic relations in 1972. Things are so bad that a summit meeting without first laying the ground work will not help.

The visit to Washington is meant to strengthen Abe’s hand for an expected summit after Xi Jinping, the new Chinese leader, assumes the presidency next month. The Japanese leader wants to show that there is no daylight between Japan and the U.S., including on the issue of the Senkaku Islands.

In fact, at Japan’s urging, the U.S. Congress has adopted legislation, already signed into law by President Barack Obama, in which the U.S. recognized Japan’s administration of the islands.

Before assuming office, Abe said he might station officials on the islands — a move bound to inflame passions in Beijing — but, in a reflection of his pragmatism, he said after his election that such a move will not be made anytime soon.

Since assuming office, he has also indicated that he will not repudiate the apology issued in 1995 by the then-Socialist prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.

However, there is one issue relating to history that still could derail Japan’s relations with its main allies — that of the “comfort women” or sex slaves.

During his first term, Abe insisted that there was no evidence that the Imperial Japanese Army had been involved in forcibly abducting Korean, Chinese and other young women to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers. However, he did not repudiate the statement issued in 1993 by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, which acknowledged the Japanese military’s responsibility and which offered an apology to the victims.

Abe still rejects the Kono statement. In this, he is not alone. There are plenty of people in Japan who say the women were simply prostitutes. But he should know that if he repudiates the Kono statement or even waters it down, he will be committing political suicide.

He will incur the wrath of China, South Korea and, most likely, the U.S. as well. After all, the U.S. Congress in 2007 unanimously adopted a resolution calling on Japan to apologize and to accept responsibility.

If Abe officially rejects the Kono statement, justly or not he will become an international outcast. He won’t even be able to function as prime minister. He will simply extend the revolving door premiership that Japan has experienced for the last six years.

On issues of history, Abe should realize that he must listen to his head rather than to his heart, and resort to pragmatism.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. Email: Frank.ching@gmail.com Twitter: @FrankChing1