What now, after Abe speech?

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What now, after Abe speech?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s much anticipated statement commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II on Aug. 14 did not resolve the problems of history in Northeast Asia, but neither did it set back relations among the major powers in the region. The “Asian Paradox” described by President Park Geun-hye is still alive and well, but perhaps there is room for forward movement in the wake of Abe and Park’s statements last week.

For his part, Abe hit the center in Japan. In Kyodo News polls taken after the speech, 44.2 percent of Japanese approved of the statement and 37 percent viewed it unfavorably. According to polls taken by the more conservative Fuji Sankei media group, 57 percent approved.

The left-leaning media reaction in Japan was predictably critical, while more right-wing commentators are disappointed that the prime minister was so effusive in his expressions of remorse. Polls generally showed an increase in support for the government after the speech, so Abe probably hit the mark in terms of domestic politics: It was a centrist statement.

Among liberal democracies (other than the Republic of Korea) the Abe statement was favorably received by governments, though debated by the media. The U.S. National Security spokesman immediately “welcomed” the statement, as did the Australian Prime Minister’s Office. The rapid responses from Washington and Canberra were no doubt intended to send an early positive signal to the rest of Asia and encourage forward dialogue rather than recriminations. The Chinese reaction has been described as harsh by Western media, but was fairly moderate in historical perspective.

In English - perhaps in light of the early U.S. statement - the Chinese spokesman was reported to have said that “Japan should have made an explicit statement on the nature of the war of militarism and aggression and its responsibility on the wars, made a sincere apology to the people of victim countries, and made a clean break with the past of militarist aggression, rather than being evasive on this major issue of principle.”

In Chinese the spokesman actually said “Japan should make an explicit statement … And should not be evasive …” The stronger statement in the original Chinese was probably for domestic audiences.

In any case, the Chinese response was consistent with past statements and not intended as a roadblock to steady improvement of Sino-Japanese relations, which have stabilized somewhat since the Abe summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping last November.

In light of all these facts, most observers in Washington saw Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se’s initial statement that “actions are more important than words” as an appropriate response.

President Park’s subsequent expression of some disappointment, but also a willingness to move forward, has also been well-received in Washington. The Park administration was in a difficult position, since the Abe statement included many references to remorse and promised to stand by previous government apologies, but did not issue a fresh apology as expected. It appears that the Yun and Park formulations made that disappointment clear, clarified expectations that there will have to be progress on the issue of the comfort women, but also set forward momentum in ROK-Japan relations overall.

So now what happens?

First, I do not think that subsequent Japanese prime ministers will offer their own apology going forward. Abe’s formula - confirming past apologies only while expressing remorse and grief - has played well with the Japanese public. This is probably the new normal.

Second, although a majority of Japanese respondents to polls still do not think the security legislation in the Diet should pass this session, it will. This is because Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary was sufficient to satisfy his pacifist-leaning coalition partner Komeito (the statement was issued as a cabinet statement and thus with Komeito support).

Third, I think Abe will continue working with Xi to make incremental improvements in Sino-Japanese relations at the leadership level, even as security tensions between the two Asian rivals remain high. In fact, the Aug. 14 statement appears to have been crafted with the Japanese public in mind first, allies like the United States second and China third.

There is speculation Abe will join China’s 70th anniversary celebration in Beijing, perhaps on a separate day from the military parade. However, I would bet against that, given the political risk to Abe should the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) turn the celebration into an anti-Japanese demonstration of military power (as senior PLA officials have promised).

Fourth, judging from the Abe and Park statements, I would expect a trilateral Korea-China-Japan summit will be held no later than the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting in Beijing in November, and probably before that in Korea. The last trilateral summit was in May 2012, though the foreign ministers were able to meet in Seoul in March of this year.

Fifth, discussions over comfort women and other contentious issues in Korea-Japan relations will continue. And the success of the trilateral talks will depend on how well those talks proceed.

In short, the Abe statement - despite some disappointment and even criticism - kept Korea-Japan and Japan-China relations on the track that diplomats in all three countries and the United States had hoped for. But that journey is not over.

*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan, chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

by Michael Green

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