Japan's Abe Seeks Talks With China, South Korea

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

TOKYO, Oct. 2 -- Seeking to mend Japan's deteriorating relations with its neighbors, Japanese officials on Monday said they were moving quickly to arrange summit meetings between freshly inaugurated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his counterparts in China and South Korea.

Officials here cautioned that negotiations with one or both nations might yet break down. But widespread Japanese media reports indicated that Abe plans to hold talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Sunday and to see South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun the next day.

Scoring such summits so early in his tenure would mark a symbolic breakthrough for Abe, 52, who succeeded Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister on Sept. 26. China and South Korea have boycotted top-level meetings with Japan since last year, citing Koizumi's annual visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's military dead, including convicted World War II criminals.

Japan's relations with both nations have also sharply deteriorated over territorial disputes. Tensions between China and Japan center on drilling rights in the East China Sea, an issue that has increasingly concerned the United States. Japan's schism with South Korea over disputed islets, meanwhile, has helped plunge relations between Washington's two most important allies in the region to their lowest point since the end of World War II.

"I plan to develop forward-looking relations with our important neighbors, China and South Korea, by building mutual understanding through dialogue and cooperation in every possible level and area," Abe told reporters in Tokyo on Monday.

Analysts were quick to lower expectations for a long-term easing of tensions in the region -- largely because Abe's positions on the issues dividing Japan from its neighbors are at least as hard-line as Koizumi's.

Abe underscored his position on at least one issue Monday, telling parliament that he wished to continue to pray for Japan's war dead and revere their memories. He said he would refuse all comment on whether he intends to do that by visiting Yasukuni annually, as Koizumi did.

Abe is believed to have already made his own visit there last April, although he never publicly confirmed it. Regardless, analysts predict Abe will hold off on visiting the highly symbolic shrine until at least after Japan's key legislative elections in July, when his ruling Liberal Democratic Party must hold on to power for him to continue his premiership.

"For Abe, to have the summit meetings now and illustrate friendship between the countries, then win the July elections and visit Yasukuni later next year would be an ideal scenario," said Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst. But China and South Korea "will face major embarrassment at home if that happens."

If Abe manages to meet with Hu and Roh, he'd have much to talk about. Among the issues for discussion might be Abe's support for new Japanese history textbooks, which have been denounced by Beijing and Seoul as whitewashing Japan's past aggression. His push to strengthen patriotism in Japanese classrooms and to rewrite Japan's pacifist constitution to allow for a greater role for the military have also made China and South Korea uneasy.

In April, South Korea dispatched a flotilla of warships to prevent a Japanese survey vessel from entering waters claimed by both nations. Japan and China have become bogged down in negotiations aimed at resolving an increasingly serious dispute over lucrative energy rights near islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyutai in Chinese. The Chinese have constructed drilling platforms that could tap resources claimed by the Japanese.

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