Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken a successful first step toward more constructive relations between Japan, on the one hand, and China and South Korea, on the other, by visiting the capitals of both countries and holding summits with their leaders less than two weeks after he took office. By making these visits, Mr. Abe has shown that he is flexible enough to adopt a pragmatic approach to help solve important issues while setting aside his personal ideology. Japan’s relations with the two neighboring countries had deteriorated due to former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine.
Mr. Abe’s meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing on Sunday was the first Japan-China summit held in China since October 2001 when Mr. Koizumi held a summit with then Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Mr. Abe also held his first summit with South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun in Seoul on Monday — the first Japan-South Korea summit since Mr. Roh met with Mr. Koizumi in Pusan in November 2005.
In his respective meetings with Mr. Hu and Mr. Roh, Mr. Abe expressed remorse over the enormous damage and sufferings Japan “in the past” caused to people of Asian nations. Thus he made it clear that he has endorsed the statement made by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on Aug. 15, 1995, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, in which the Japanese government officially apologized for such damage and sufferings Japan’s colonial rule and aggression had caused. It is also noteworthy that Japan and China and Japan and South Korea, respectively, agreed to launch joint historical research — the first such research for Japan and China and a second round for Japan and South Korea.
Mr. Abe assured Mr. Roh that his Cabinet will honor the 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, which admitted the Japanese military’s involvement in management of “comfort women,” who were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers during the war, and apologized for their sufferings.
The latest summits were prompted by all parties’ desire to end, through compromise, the impasse in relationships between Japan and the two nations. Both China and South Korea refrained from insisting that stopping Yasukuni visits is the prerequisite for holding summits, although China pointed out that Mr. Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits hurt the feelings of Chinese and other Asian peoples, and South Korea mentioned the history-textbook, comfort-woman and Yasukuni issues as impediments to better bilateral relations.
Mr. Abe, for his part, told Mr. Hu and Mr. Roh that he will not make public whether he will visit, or has visited, Yasukuni and that he will handle the matter “appropriately” from the viewpoint of promoting healthy bilateral relations. Neither Mr. Hu nor Mr. Roh objected to Mr. Abe’s explanation. This is a temporary solution to the Yasukuni issue. If it becomes known that Mr. Abe has visited the shrine as prime minister, a strong reaction by both China and South Korea could cause Japan’s relations with the two to deteriorate again.
In the Beijing summit, both Mr. Abe and Mr. Hu affirmed their wish to improve bilateral relations. The Japanese prime minister told the Chinese president that he chose China as the country for his first overseas summit to show that he attaches “extreme importance to good Japan-China relations.” The Chinese president expressed a hope that Mr. Abe’s China visit will become a “new starting point” for improvement and development of the China-Japan relations.
In a conciliatory move, Mr. Hu accepted the historical view that Japan has walked a postwar path as a nation of peace, adding that he hoped Japan will move forward on the same path. Both Mr. Abe and Mr. Hu agreed that both nations will “strongly turn the two wheels of politics and economics,” elevating bilateral relations to a “higher dimension.” For the first time in bilateral relations, the two countries agreed to seek a “strategic relationship” that is mutually beneficial in such matters as energy development, environmental protection, reform of the United Nations, and efforts to solve North Korea’s nuclear-weapons issue. This is a step up from the “friendly and cooperative relationship” stipulated in the November 1998 Japan-China joint statement issued in Tokyo by then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and then Chinese President Jiang.
It is hoped that Mr. Abe’s summits in Beijing and Seoul will serve as a foundation for solving issues such as the disputes over exclusive economic zones with both China and South Korea (including joint development of natural-gas resources with China in the East China Sea), North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development program, and the past abduction of Japanese and South Korean nationals by North Korean agents.
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