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Monday, Oct. 9, 2006

Abe, Hu agree to push 'strategic' ties

N. Korea nuclear crisis sparks 'deep concern'

Staff writer

BEIJING -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed Sunday with Chinese President Hu Jintao that the two nations will push forward a "strategic" partnership, breaking the ice in a diplomatic relationship that in recent years has grown increasingly cold.

Their meeting was the first summit between the two Asian powers in more than a year.

Both sides agreed to cooperate on a variety of issues ranging from economic matters, energy, the environment and security to culture, marking a clear turning point in their damaged relations.

They also shared common ground on the North Korean nuclear crisis.

A joint statement released after the summit stated that "both sides expressed deep concern about recent situations over the Korean Peninsula, including the issue of nuclear tests."

"President Hu and I agreed that a North Korean nuclear test would be a threat to East Asia as well as the rest of the world and that we cannot accept it," Abe said at a postsummit news conference. "This agreement sends a strong message to North Korea."

Japan will continue to ask Pyongyang to come back to the six-party talks without any conditions, Abe said.

However, the two sides differed somewhat in their stances toward Pyongyang.

China, responding to Abe's request, said it will press its ally harder not to carry out its planned nuclear test. But Beijing stressed the importance of talks with the North, unlike Japan, which is willing to take additional sanctions.

Abe told Hu that the Yasukuni Shrine issue will be handled "appropriately."

"I explained (to the Chinese leaders) that I will not say whether I visited or I will visit Yasukuni Shrine as long as it remains a diplomatic and political problem," Abe said. "From the viewpoint of solving political difficulties (between the two nations), I will handle (the issue) appropriately. I believe I gained (their) understanding" with this explanation.

Abe said he and the Japanese people regret that Japan caused tremendous damage, pain and serious scars on people in other parts of Asia during World War II.

The two leaders agreed to start a joint study on history before the end of the year.

At the start of their meeting, Hu said Abe's visit represents a "turning point" in bilateral relations as well as a new start.

"Your visit to China as the first destination, made right after you took office, is a sign that you are emphasizing improvement and development of China-Japan relations," Hu said.

Abe said he chose China for his first overseas summit to show he places "extreme importance on good Japan-China relations" and thanked China for welcoming him.

Abe, who took office Sept. 26, chose China and South Korea for his first trip because his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, angered the two countries with his annual pilgrimages to Yasukuni Shrine.

Abe was scheduled to head on to Seoul on Monday for a summit with President Roh Moo Hyun.

The rapid move illustrates how Abe is trying to soften his hawkish image and demonstrate his strong intention to mend the strained relations with Japan's closest neighbors.

Tokyo and Beijing had not held summit talks since April 2005, when Koizumi met Hu on the sidelines of a summit of Asian and African leaders in Jakarta.

During Sunday's meeting with Abe, Hu made a five-point proposal for improving bilateral ties, including mutual visits by the two countries' leaders.

Hu accepted Abe's invitation to visit Japan. The two leaders also agreed to arrange another meeting at the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Hanoi, scheduled for Nov. 18 and 19, and again at the East Asia Summit of ASEAN countries, Japan, China, South Korea and some other Asian nations, scheduled for December in Cebu, the Philippines.

Abe's trip marked the first full-fledged state visit by a Japanese prime minister to China in five years, with a welcoming ceremony and banquet.

After arriving in Beijing, Abe attended a welcome ceremony hosted by Premier Wen Jiabao at a grand square in front of the Great Hall of the People, and later held talks with Wen and Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in Beijing.

In Abe's meeting with Wen, both sides expressed hope that friendly relations will be promoted through mutual efforts.

"As a result of our recent mutual efforts, we have overcome political obstacles that influence bilateral relations, and agreed that we will develop our friendly relations soundly and steadily," Wen told Abe at the start of the meeting.

North Korea's threatened nuclear test emerged suddenly as the summit's top agenda item. Pyongyang announced last Tuesday it would conduct such a test but did not offer a specific date.

The surprise announcement prompted the U.N. Security Council on Friday to urge North Korea not to carry out such a test and warned of sanctions if it goes ahead.

Besides North Korea, numerous issues stand between China and Japan, including the territorial dispute in the East China Sea and occasional anti-Japan protests in China. There is also a growing need for mutual economic and environmental cooperation.

Experts say the urgent demands behind such issues pushed both sides to reopen the top-level dialogue.

Political insiders say Beijing and Seoul approached Abe about mending their ties with Japan even before he was elected prime minister.

Abe also made overtures to Beijing and Seoul before taking office.

However, the resumption of summit talks does not mean the contentious Yasukuni Shrine issue has been resolved.

Although China and South Korea have been demanding that Japanese leaders not visit the shrine, Abe has taken a "strategically ambiguous" stance by refusing to admit his secret visit to the shrine last April 15 or to declare whether he will make a pilgrimage in the future.

Yet, they still agreed to hold the top-level meetings.

"It is highly possible that Chinese leaders understood during negotiations behind the scenes that Prime Minister Abe would not pay a secret visit to Yasukuni," said Zhu Jianrong, a professor for Chinese studies at Toyo Gakuen University in Tokyo.

Zhu said he thinks it unlikely that Abe will visit Yasukuni at least until the Upper House election next summer, the result of which would decide the fate of his administration.

"Since he has already gained support from conservatives, what he needs is to get support from moderates and show that he made efforts in Asian diplomacy," he said.

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The Japan Times

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