In his summits with Presidents Hu Jintao of China and Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took the first step toward improving relations that had soured between Japan and the two countries under the rule of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. His initiative also opened a new horizon in Japan’s diplomacy in Asia.

North Korea’s nuclear test, carried out during Abe’s summit diplomacy, signals a direct security threat to Japan and the rest of Asia, as well as a threat to the nuclear nonproliferation system.

The adoption of a resolution by the U.N. Security Council calling for sanctions against North Korea should be regarded as the first fruit of cooperation between Japan and China, and Japan and South Korea, at a summit.

China was the first country the new premier visited, followed by South Korea. This was unusual since most new Japanese prime ministers have chosen Washington for their first summit. Abe was keenly aware that the tattered relations with Beijing and Seoul had become a stumbling block in Japanese diplomacy.

Abe’s tour paved the way for high-level political dialogue with leaders of the two neighbors through reciprocal visits. Abe’s visit to Beijing marked the first by a Japanese leader in five years, and followed public protests in China against Koizumi’s annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Loss of trust had led to political alienation between Japan and China, despite thriving economic relations.

Japan-China rivalries intensified over Tokyo’s bid to win a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, territorial disputes and the use of maritime resources. Public sentiment in China and Japan worsened against the other. Japan-China squabbles over the proposed “East Asian Community” resulted. The situation was essentially the same with South Korea.

In their summit, Japan and China agreed to build “a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests,” a notch above the 1998 pledge of “a partnership of friendship and cooperation.” Tokyo and Beijing agreed to promote cooperation in the fields of the economy, energy and environmental protection.

The two leaders also agreed to strengthen bilateral relations by “turning the wheels” of politics and economics. Abe essentially recanted his earlier principle of separating politics and economics in bilateral relations.

Furthermore, Abe and Hu agreed to establish before yearend a bilateral panel of intellectuals to study historical matters, which have often caused disputes between the two countries. They also agreed to expedite talks on the joint development of natural gas fields in the East China Sea, the source of an on-and-off squabble between the two countries.

At a news conference after the summit, Abe mentioned North Korea’s nuclear-arms and missile development as the most important challenge for the “mutually beneficial relationship.”

In September 2005, North Korea had pledged to abandon all of its nuclear arms at the “six-party talks,” but later refused to return to the talks, demanding an end to U.S. financial sanctions.

Although Hu promised — in response to Abe’s request — to ask North Korea to refrain from conducting the threatened nuclear test, Pyongyang went ahead with it the next day. This made Beijing lose face as the chair of the six-party talks.

Depending on how North Korea responds to the U.N. Security Council resolution, the six-party talks could be endangered. China’s influence is at stake.

Pyongyang’s announcement of its nuclear test while Abe was in Seoul made it inevitable that the summit would focus on the nuclear issue. Abe and Roh, who had pursued an engagement policy with North Korea, agreed to coordinate closely on adopting a tough Security Council resolution against Pyongyang.

Although China and South Korea agreed to mend tattered relations with Japan, they are likely to have done so because of the recent change in Japanese government. China and South Korea probably still harbor distrust of Japan over historical perceptions. Roh mentioned the war-related Yasukuni Shrine, the contents of history textbooks and Japan’s use of wartime sex slaves as major hurdles in bilateral relations.

Regarding historical perceptions, Abe repeated the Japanese government’s past official statement of apology to both Hu and Roh. But Abe declined to say whether he will visit Yasukuni.

Some U.S. lawmakers have criticized Japanese prime ministers’ visits to Yasukuni as detrimental to U.S. interests. On Sept. 14, U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, told a hearing of the House International Relations Committee: “Japan’s failure to deal honestly with its past does great disservice to the nation of Japan, offends other key players in Northeast Asia and undermines America’s own national security interests by exacerbating regional tensions.”

In a message to the incoming Japanese prime minister, Lantos said: “Paying one’s respects to war criminals is morally bankrupt and unworthy of a great nation such as Japan. This practice must end.”

Lantos added that “as Japanese leaders go out of their way to offend Korea and China,” it will be difficult for Japan to play a greater role in the new security framework for Northeast Asia and the international community.

Even though Abe has taken the first step toward the mending of relations with China and South Korea, he has yet to prove his ability to establish relations of trust with world leaders.

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