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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Abe, Fukuda readying for LDP contest

Issue of Japan's relations with Asia tops the agenda among supporters

Staff writer

At the top of the in basket for Japan's next prime minister will be how to improve Japan's sour relations with China and South Korea.

News photo
Shinzo Abe

That helps explain why the spotlight has fallen on veteran Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Yasuo Fukuda as a possible candidate. Fukuda is widely seen as having a "pro-Asia" outlook.

But critics argue that support for the 69-year-old Fukuda stems more from his advanced age than anything else, saying the old guard in the ruling LDP worry that if Fukuda's 51-year-old rival, Shinzo Abe, takes over the top spot, they may have to give up on senior party or Cabinet posts.

"What makes the contrast between the two candidates stark is their diplomatic policies, particularly in East Asia," said Yasunori Sone, a professor of political science at Keio University.

"There are many voices saying that only Fukuda can solve the problems with neighboring countries.

"But those who support Fukuda are also old politicians who don't want to see a generational change in the party."

According to a Kyodo News survey published May 15, Fukuda, the former chief Cabinet secretary, has narrowed the gap with Abe, the current one.

Abe, who is known for his hardline approach toward China and North Korea, has consistently been the most popular candidate among the public to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who will step down at the end of September.

The two political blue bloods have yet to declare plans to run for the LDP presidency, and hence the prime ministership, but supporters have stepped up their unofficial campaigns.

"I believe it is Mr. Fukuda who can repair Japan's relations with China and South Korea," said Seishiro Eto, a former Defense Agency chief and longtime supporter of Fukuda.

News photo
Yasuo Fukuda

Mending those frayed ties is necessary if Japan is to develop diplomatic relations with North Korea, with which it is arguing over the fate of Japanese abductees possibly still in the country, Eto said. Diplomatic channels between Tokyo and Pyongyang have long been blocked.

Late last month, Fukuda said he plans to update the so-called Fukuda doctrine pursued by his late prime minister father, Takeo, three decades ago.

The doctrine states Japan should not become a military power and should build "heart-to-heart" friendly relations with other parts of Asia.

Fukuda's announcement, along with his recent trips to the United States and Middle East oil-producers, indicates his eagerness to become prime minister, supporters said.

Referring to Koizumi's contentious visits to Yasukuni Shrine, Eto said the prime minister should not go to the shrine as long as it honors Class-A war criminals, and he believes Fukuda would show such restraint.

Abe partisans are unimpressed.

"Japan has to create 'strategic cooperation' with China," said Ichita Yamamoto, a LDP lawmaker who has thrown his support behind Abe, adding that friendship alone cannot repair the bad relations between the two countries, given that China has become an economic superpower and a formidable competitor with Japan.

"The next prime minister has to make tough decisions to protect the nation's interests, and it is Abe who can do that," Yamamoto said.

For instance, the Yasukuni issue and gas exploration in East China Sea will remain highly charged diplomatic issues the next prime minister will have to deal with, he said.

Abe is considered a believer in diplomacy Koizumi-style, but observers say it is uncertain if he will visit the Shinto shrine if he became prime minister.

Both Fukuda and Abe belong to the LDP faction led by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

Last week, Mori said he has no intention of limiting his group to just one candidate in the LDP presidential race.

That remark was widely viewed as a green light for both Abe and Fukuda to throw their hats into the ring. LDP factions have traditionally each fielded only one candidate.

Mori also urged member lawmakers of his faction, including Eto and Yamamoto, to tone down their support for potential candidates, worried over possible rifts in the group.

Politicians from other LDP factions, as well as business leaders, are also focused on Japan's relations with China and South Korea.

LDP heavyweight Taku Yamasaki said earlier in May that Koizumi's successor will fail if he attempts to imitate Koizumi's political style, and that the next prime minister must work on Japan's relations with Asia, especially East Asia.

Concerns over regional tensions also prompted the major business lobby Keizai Doyukai to urge Koizumi to halt his annual visits to Yasukuni, saying they are the main obstacle to improving relations with China and South Korea.

The diplomatic worries don't stop there.

Media reports earlier this week indicated that U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, is seeking a guarantee from Koizumi that he will not visit Yasukuni again, before he is invited to deliver a speech before Congress during a trip to Washington planned for late June.

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