Japan moves to improve ties

New prime minister seeks summits with China, S. Korea leaders


TOKYO --The newly installed administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is moving rapidly to improve estranged relations with his nation's closest Asian neighbors, China and South Korea.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry said yesterday that it was in talks about possible summit meetings in Beijing and Seoul next week. The trip would mark an early diplomatic victory for the new prime minister and would likely take place less than two weeks after Abe assumed office on Sept. 26.

China and South Korea had refused such summit meetings with Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, in anger over his annual visits to a Tokyo shrine honoring Japan's war dead, including convicted World War II criminals. Abe has refused to say whether he will visit the shrine, called Yasukuni.

By making such an overseas trip so early, Abe would also be apparently trying to allay concerns that his more assertive brand of nationalism and hawkish stance on defense would further damage ties with Asian neighbors.

These concerns were widespread not only in Japan, which is economically dependent on Asia, but also in the United States, where the growing isolation of Japan, Washington's most important ally in the region, is viewed as a diplomatic liability.

"Abe wants a quick diplomatic breakthrough," said Koji Murata, a professor of international relations at Doshisha University in Kyoto. "He wants to show that Japan is not just stubbornly refusing to talk with the rest of Asia."

The ministry refused to provide details of the prospective summit meetings, and there was still the possibility that the negotiations for them could fall through. But reports in most major Japanese newspapers said Abe would travel to Beijing on Sunday to meet with President Hu Jintao, then stop Monday in Seoul for talks with President Roh Moo Hyun.

The last time a Japanese prime minister officially met with a Chinese president was five years ago. Koizumi last met with Roh in June last year.

Murata and other foreign policy experts said they expected that little concrete would come out of the summit meetings. But they saw plenty of symbolic importance, particularly that Abe is proposing to visit the two Asian countries even before heading to the United States, which defends Japan and remains a huge market for its cars and electronics.

In the past, many Japanese prime ministers had felt obligated to pay their respects in Washington before traveling elsewhere. By heading straight to Asia, Abe would signal both his confidence in the stability of U.S. diplomatic ties and his desire for Japan to be treated as an equal partner, foreign policy experts said.

Since before his inauguration, there have been widespread concerns that Abe's pledges to arm Japan and raise its international profile would further chill Asian ties. Such talk has fed Asian fears that Japan is swinging to the right, as the country debates revising its pacifist constitution and has rewritten textbooks to gloss over wartime atrocities.

Sensitivities are particularly acute in China and South Korea, where memories of Japan's sometimes brutal wartime expansion are still vivid.

But Abe has promised to improve relations with both countries, as well as with Russia. In recent speeches, he has seemed to play down continuing territorial disputes involving Tokyo and all three countries, including a potentially volatile spat over China's drilling of natural gas in disputed waters in the East China Sea.

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