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A flurry of activities in Northeast Asia

Updated On: Jun 12, 2007

There is a flurry of activities going on in Northeast Asia with Lee Teng-hui's visit, Japan-Australia talks, North Korean test-firing of missiles again and the offer by Russia to help solve stalemate over North Korean funds.

Former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui (term of office: 1988-2000) tried his best to stir the pot by blasting both China and South Korea for criticizing Japanese politicians over the Yasukuni Shrine visits and accused them of using the issue as a means to distract their people from domestic problems. He made all these comments speaking in Japanese at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in his so-called “private” visit to Japan and before his private visit to the Yasukuni shrine to honour his elder brother who died while serving in the Japanese navy.

"Yasukuni issues have been made up just because China and Korea could not handle their own domestic problems. And Japan has been too weak (in reacting to the protests)," said the 84-year-old Lee. He then went on to turn on his hosts, criticizing them for being too soft on China and South Korea. He was perhaps referring to Prime Minister Abe’s “strategic ambiguity” in keeping mum about whether he would visit the Yasukuni shrine.

Defending his visit to the shrine, President Lee argued that the Yasukuni Shrine was a spiritual site that honors Japanese soldiers and officers who died in the war.  "There is no reason for Japan to be criticised by foreign countries or foreign governments over this kind of issue," Lee said. "It is such a natural thing to honour young people who died for the country."

His visit was not without incident as a man, who was identified as a Chinese engineer aged 34 and living in Chiba, hurled two plastic bottles containing liquid at him without hurting him. But try as he might, he was unable to draw more than a whimper of a protest from the Chinese government, indicating maturity on the part of China and a possibility that there is a political consensus amongst Chinese leaders not to make things difficult for their Kuomintang allies in winning the next presidential elections in Taiwan. In addition, Chinese leaders probably wants to preserve overall harmony in Sino-Japanese relations that was initiated symbolically by Abe’s visit to China as his first stop after taking over as Prime Minister.

The Chinese did make a “symbolic protest” during a regular press briefing by the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu.  "Based on what Lee Teng-hui has done in Japan, it is clear what his intentions are, and we have again expressed our strong dissatisfaction with the Japanese side for allowing Lee to visit Japan," she said.

Damage control, if any need for it, was swift and non-eventful. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki maintained that he expected a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Hu Jintao at this week's Group of Eight summit in Germany to proceed as planned. 'It was Mr Lee's private act and it should not affect Sino-Japanese relations,' Mr Shiozaki said. 'There is practically nothing that the Japanese government can do about it. Even if he visits, it would have nearly zero effect on China-Japan relationship,' said foreign ministry deputy spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi.

While China remained relatively quiet about Lee’s visit, it was surprisingly suspicious of Australia’s strategic intentions in the Australia-Japan security talks. Using a nuclear-armed North Korea as an explanation and also the argument that its long-range missiles could reach northern AustraliaAustralia is thinking about participating in a joint missile defense system with Japan and the United States. This seems to reflect some pessimism on the Australian side about the success rate of the six party talks even as the Russians try to help the transfer of North Korean funds out of the besieged Macau bank into an acceptable entity for the North Koreans.

Mr Nelson told a press conference that Australia was 'extremely concerned about the behaviour of North Korea', which he called a 'real threat' to the region. Of course, the recent North Korean missile tests (albeit routine and short-ranged missiles) fanned such fears. Australian defence minister Brendon Nelson met with Japanese Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma in Tokyo to study such options which may include putting interceptor missiles onboard Aegis destroyers.

Japanese defense official Akira Kamata has announced officially that Japan plans to send observers to joint military exercises scheduled by Australia and the U.S. in June 2007. Both countries have also signed a security treaty in March 2007 for Japanese troops to train alongside Australians for disaster relief and peacekeeping missions, and to augment intelligence operations in counterterrorism measures and data sharing. The Japan-Australia talks also 'discuss concrete policies over international problems including North Korea and security cooperation between Japan and Australia', said Japan's chief government spokesman Yasuhisa Shiozaki.

Aware of its own military weakness, Australia is trying to expand its military manpower from 27 500 to 30 500 men troops as part of its security arrangement in its trilateral arrangements with Japan and theUS. It is arguably a continuation of the deputy sheriff doctrine where Australia takes responsibility for East Asian defence on behalf of Washington, now sharing that responsibility with Japan. "Australia also supports the development of the ballistic missile defense by Japan in cooperation with the United States of America as a defensive measure specifically for rogue states, such as North Korea," Nelson said. "We are studying the extent to which we might also be able to . . . provide assistance in that regard."

Australia has to thread carefully as its current bout of prosperity is generated in part by trade with China and it is also dependent on China for commodities sale in resources like uranium. Already, the Chinese are watching carefully Australian moves. Zhang Qinsheng, deputy chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, made China's opposition to the missile defense system clear at the Asia Security Summit in Singapore highlighting the fact that the system with Australian and Japanese participation covered Taiwan.

Researcher Pan Zheng, of the PLA University of National Defense, questioned Australia's motives for cooperating in the missile system. "The Six-Party Talks (on Pyongyang's nuclear program) have made great progress and are still working towards a brighter future. Meanwhile the US and the DPRK have established channels for direct high-level dialogue," said Pan, "I cannot see the necessity for military expansion targeting the DPRK at this time. "In my opinion, it is more focused on curbing China."  (11 June 2007)

Sources:

Lee raps ChinaSouth Korea over Yasukuni (Japan Times, 10 June 2007)

Ex-Taiwan leader's war shrine visit irks Beijing (Straits Times, 8 June 2007)

Japan 'too soft' with neighbours, says Taiwan's Lee (Channelnewsasia, 8 June 2007)

Lee's visit to shrine blasted (People's Daily, 8 June 2007)

Russia seeks to help solve North Korea funds (Reuters, 8 June 2007)

Missile system affects China's security: analysts (People’s Daily, 8 June 2007)

Lee Teng-hui visits Japanese war shrine (Straits Times, 7 June 2007)

Taiwan ex-leader in shrine visit  (BBC, 7 June 2007)

JapanAustralia hold defence-diplomacy talks  (Straits Times, 6 June 2007)

Australia mulls missile defense cooperation with JapanU.S. (Japan Times, 6 June 2007)