[OUTLOOK]Where will Abe visit first?Which country will Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visit first? This is the most popular issue to talk about when diplomats and journalists stationed in Tokyo and political scientists meet. The safest choice will be the United States. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi flew to Camp David only two months after he entered office. Prime Minister Abe thinks the U.S.-Japan alliance is very important, more than anyone else does. But a new prime minister usually feels pressured to show different colors from his or her predecessor.
Prime Minister Abe seems to have China on his mind. If summit meetings between the two countries are resumed after having been stalled for nearly five years, the new Japanese leader will be credited with restoring diplomacy in Asia, which Mr. Koizumi ruined. There is another realistic and desperate reason for this ― the elections for members of the House of Councilors scheduled for next July. If his party loses, that will be the end of political life for Prime Minister Abe.
Mr. Abe is quite flexible about visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. The belated news coverage of his April visit to the shrine was his plan. This was like sending a message that he would not visit there again until at least next spring. Even if he visits the shrine, he said he would not make it a big event like Mr. Koizumi did, and he would not even make his visit public beforehand.
However, this is not all he needs to prepare to visit China because China will certainly demand that he express a more clear and progressive historical view for a hard-won chance to meet Japan’s prime minister.
It was the same when Mr. Koizumi visited China in October 2001. Before having a summit meeting with Jiang Zemin, Mr. Koizumi visited the Memorial Hall of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japan in Lugouqiao, where Japan started its invasion of China in 1937. At the memorial hall, Mr. Koizumi said he delivered sincere apologies and consolation to the Chinese people who were sacrificed due to Japan’s invasion. In the visitors’ book, he wrote an expression from the Analects of Confucius, “Sincerity and forgiveness.” He visited Lugouqiao and voiced those remarks on the shared past at the request of China.
Thanks to these actions, the summit meeting resulted in friendly outcomes. Japan decided to lift safeguards on agricultural goods from China and China decided to lift its retaliatory duties on Japan’s goods, such as cars and cell phones. Both countries benefited from the summit meeting. China and Japan are making contact in order to resume summit meetings, according to the people involved. The question is whether the two countries will reach an agreement on their stances on historical incidents. The two countries still have wide differences in their perceptions of history.
When former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama visited China in May 1995, he expressed “profound remorse” for Japan’s “acts of aggression and colonial rule of the past.” This remark has become a basic policy of the Japanese government. Other prime ministers of Japan have used Mr. Murayama’s remarks as a guide when making public statements. But Mr. Abe displays a very vague stance on Mr. Murayama’s remarks. He seems to believe that he knows the government’s stance, once adopted, cannot be reversed, but that Mr. Murayama’s remarks are not the same as his personal convictions.
Some foresee that Prime Minister Abe will have a meeting with the Korean leader before meeting with the Chinese leader. If this happens, Korea does not need to worry about the impression that it follows China’s lead. There is also a chance that the Japanese leader will fail to gain a meeting with the Chinese leader so he will choose to meet the Korean leader first.
There is one thing clear. In Japan, when diplomacy in Asia or a historical viewpoint is debated, China is the most dominant country on its mind. Japan seems to think that if it resolves problems with China, then problems with Korea will be resolved as well. This might be a natural thought process, when considering the status of China and Korea on the international stage. But it still feels uneasy that the relationship between Korea and Japan is not treated as a separate matter, but instead is treated as dependent on the ties between Japan and China.
However, part of this is Korea’s own fault. Korea’s foreign policy toward Japan has left the impression that Korea follows China’s policy, as seen by Korea’s extreme position that it will not have a summit meeting with Japan as long as its leaders keep visiting the Yasukuni shrine. This is even more regrettable because the Roh Moo-hyun administration has emphasized self-reliance in diplomacy.
* The writer is a Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yeh Young-june