Abe makes push for new game in Asia with summits
New Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has wasted no time in acting on his slogan of "autonomous diplomacy" and stated goal of realizing "equal" relationships with the People's Republic of China, South Korea and even the United States, and no longer being dominated by other countries or having to compromise in the face of unreasonable demands.
In addition, Abe seems intent on intensifying Tokyo's campaign to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and will therefore need to build neighborly regional relationships.
In this light, restoration of summit discussions with the PRC and the Republic of Korea are urgent priorities.
It will hardly come as a surprise that the PRC foreign ministry confirmed yesterday that Abe will visit Beijing from October 8-9 in response to an invitation by PRC Premier Wen Jiabao and will probably meet with both PRC State Chairman Hu Jintao and Wei in the first interaction between the PRC leaders and the new Japanese prime minister.
Moreover, Abe is slated to meet with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in Seoul October 9 on his way back from the PRC capital.
How to realize a balance between these two objectives will surely test the wisdom and political finesse of the new Japanese leader.
A stumbling block in improving ties with both Beijing and Seoul is the question of whether the Japanese prime minister will pay respects at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shinto Shrine, which safeguards memorial tablets of 2.5 million war dead, including 14 top Japanese war criminals from World War II.
The South Korean government refused to engage in a summit meeting with then Japanese prime minister Koizumi Junichiro in November 2005 due to objections over Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni. In his five years as prime minister, Tokyo and Beijng held only two summit meetings.
Hence, Abe's swift action to fulfill his promise to restore summit meetings with Japan's two most important East Asian neighbors.
In addition, Abe and Roh will meet November 18 during a summit meeting of the member countries of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to be held in Pusan, South Korea.
Abe's success in arranging these summits immediately upon taking over the post of prime minister stands as a significant diplomatic achievement, offers the prospects of opening the door to a loosening of the knots in the political relationships between Tokyo with Beijing and Seoul, and may signify the beginning of an era of moderation in Northeast Asia.
In recent years, the relations between Japan and the PRC and South Korea have become quite tense. On the surface, this trend has been linked to the perennial controversies over the Yasukuni Shrine and the annual reminder of Japanese aggression against these countries during the volatile 20th century.
However, the genuine underlying reason for the rising tensions are to be found in the political realities in the PRC and South Korea themselves.
South Korean President Roh, whom has two and half years left in his six-year term, has faced a plunge in approval ratings similar to that which has afflicted Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian in recent months.
Deflecting criticism at home
Roh's decision to launch a "diplomatic war" against Japan for historical issues on the issues of Yasukuni and even the disputed but Korean-controlled islet of Takeshima (in Japanese) or Tokdo (in Korean) was an exercise in the classic political tactic of deflecting domestic opposition onto an external foe in order to revive his own approval ratings.
Similarly, in the run-up to the sixth plenum of the 16th Congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and the open struggle against the old "Shanghai Gang" of his predecessor Jiang Zemin, Hu used Koizumi's resolution to visit Yasukuni to heighten tension with Tokyo and consolidate domestic support. As should be obvious, leaders in Beijing and Seoul are united in their vision of relations with Japan "as a tool and not a goal."
In fact, both the PRC and South Korea hope to ease the political deadlock that has existed in their bilateral relations with Tokyo during the past five years under Koizumi.
Therefore, Abe's accession to the LDP leadership and the Japanese prime ministership is seen by both Beijing and Seoul as providing an opportunity to ease their respective logjams.
Since Abe has so far maintained a low-key and ambiguous stance on the issue of a visit to Yasukuni, the PRC and South Korea hope to take advantage of this window to restart substantive dialogue.
Abe's "autonomous diplomacy" will undoubtedly be conducted under the overarching framework of the Japan-U.S. Security Alliance and will aim to enhance, not undermine, the partnership between Tokyo and Washington while boosting Tokyo's capability to speak out on Asian issues and gain a guiding influence in regional affairs.
Success in Abe's efforts to at least stabilize Tokyo's ties with the PRC and South Korea could raise expectations for the formation of an "East Asian community" and the easing of current objections, especially from Beijing and Seoul, of a permanent UNSC seat for Tokyo.
Japan's seating as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council will by itself constitute formal realization of Abe's objective of diplomatic parity for Tokyo with the U.S, the PRC and other major world powers.
While Taiwan has little choice but to remain an observer in the unfolding of this drama of "Northeast Asian detente," it is most worrying that our political parties and media remain obsessed with partisan storms in our local "teacup" and fail to see just how fast the East Asian climate is changing and neglecting the possible consequences to Taiwan.
Abe, without whose personal involvement the recent improvement Tokyo-Taipei ties would not have been possible, should remain personally friendly to Taiwan.
However, his new administration will inevitably need to place Japan's strategic interests first and will strive to foster more positive ties with both Beijing and Taipei and may tend to avoid unnecessary quarrels with Beijing over "controversial" issues regarding Taiwan.
Hence, Taipei may well be advised to settle outstanding differences, such the recurrent disputes over fishing rights and the Tiaoyutai or Senkaku islets, with Tokyo based on the principles of international law and enhance our own self-defense and security capabilities.
Abe makes push for new game in Asia with summits