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Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006

Beijing, Seoul summits about reopening dialogue

Staff writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his counterparts in China and South Korea put their differences aside last weekend and reopened top-level dialogue that had been frozen for nearly a year to focus on pressing issues, not the least of which being North Korea's nuclear test Monday.

News photo
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talks with South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun as Roh's wife, Kwon Yang Sook (left), and Abe's wife, Akie, look on after a Monday photo shoot at the presidential Blue House. POOL PHOTO

At talks Sunday with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing and Monday with South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun in Seoul, neither leader pressed Abe too hard on the historical issues that have divided them, including Yasukuni Shrine.

China and South Korea are more interested in resuming top-level dialogue with Japan to deal with issues ranging from economic cooperation to the environment and energy, according to analysts.

Resuming the dialogue with China and South Korea was also important to Abe, to show he wants a thaw, they said.

"Starting summit talks again means a lot because it alleviates overall tensions between Japan and China," said Zhu Jianrong, a professor on Chinese studies at Toyo Gakuen University.

"When people in two countries get emotional, they tend to doubt everything about each other. Then diplomatic relations often get worse," Zhu said. "But if they maintain a channel of dialogue, there is room for compromise in a number of disputes."

The atmosphere at the talks was very positive, according to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hakubun Shimomura, who attended the Beijing summit.

"I could feel the strong will of President Hu and Premier Wen (Jiabao) that they want to improve Japan-China relations," Shimomura told reporters Sunday. He said one indication was the talks went beyond their scheduled finish time.

Japan has a mountain of issues it must address with its two Asian neighbors. One of the most important is North Korea's nuclear arms threat, which Pyongyang demonstrated Monday by carrying out its first atomic test, while Abe was in Seoul.

The summits were a good occasion for Abe and his two hosts to present a united front on the issue.

"It is extremely important for the three nations to jointly demonstrate that they are united" against the North, said Hideya Kurata, an associate professor of Korean studies at Kyorin University in Tokyo.

Building economic cooperation is becoming increasingly important to the three nations.

This year marks the start of Beijing's new five-year economic plan, under which China will need Japan to support it in fields that include environment protection and energy efficiency, which are key to sustaining China's economic development, said Tomoyuki Kojima, a professor of China studies at Keio University.

For Abe's part, the trip to China and South Korea -- his first overseas visits as prime minister -- was important to counter his reputation as a diplomatic hawk.

As his Liberal Democratic Party prepares for the House of Councilors election next summer, Abe is trying to broaden his public support. The outcome of the poll in the chamber could affect the course of his government.

Even before becoming LDP president and prime minister, Abe, as chief Cabinet secretary, said in a Sept. 6 interview with The Japan Times that he would try to arrange summits with China and South Korea.

Still, analysts warn the resumption of top-level dialogue does not mean Japan's disputes over history and territory have made any progress.

Neither China nor South Korea demanded a commitment from Abe not to visit Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, as well as 14 Class-A war criminals.

Abe said he will handle the issue of trips to the shrine "appropriately," but will not discuss it publicly. Abe's predecessor Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits to the shrine angered China and South Korea, causing a halt to the summits.

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The Japan Times

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