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Northeast Asian diplomacy back on track – an important step to tackling nuclear crisis triggered by North Korea

Updated On: Oct 10, 2006

Abe visited Beijing. It turned out to be one of the most, if not the most, closely-watched political events in East Asia.

This bilateral summit between the leaders of the two most important nations in East Asia took place five years too late. The last time a Japanese head of state visited Beijing was in 2001 and the last time a Chinese head of state visited Tokyo was in 1998 (former President Jiang Zemin) and 2000 (Premier Zhu Rongji). Thus, PM Abe’s visit is highly significant and greatly anticipated by the region after half a decade of animosities. There is widespread consensus that it is the visit itself and not its contents that makes the visit important.  The warm welcome showered by China on Abe took many by surprise as most were expecting only at best a “polite” welcome.  Some analysts believed that Beijing opted to go “all out to welcome him (Abe)” as a calculated gambit to win over the new Japanese leader and “at the same time occupy the diplomatic high ground”.

The symbolic gesture of reconciliation between the two was far more important than using the event to express Japanese defiance of Chinese pressure or Chinese insistence on stopping shrine visits. And it is made all the more significant that Abe is the first postwar Japanese Prime Minister to make China his first trip overseas and it is a gesture appreciated by the PRC. Chinese President Hu Jintao made this point known openly when he took Abe’s choice of his first overseas visit as a gesture of friendship from the Japanese leader. Premier Wen urged the Japanese leader to follow world trends and work towards stable Sino-Japanese relationship. Abe responded to such diplomatic pleas by extending an invitation for President Hu and Premier Wen to visit Tokyo.

This symbol of reconciliation also came at an important time as North Korea, in defiance of all international opinion and warnings from its allies such as China, went ahead to conduct its first nuclear test on Monday (9 Oct) while Abe was still in China and on his way to South Korea.  Most Asian stocks tumbled after the North Koreans announced the test, and international condemnation was swift. The Dow Jones also fell after a few consecutive days of hike.

For the first time too, all three Northeast Asian countries, JapanChina and South Korea, were in unison and quick to condemn North Korea’s actions.  Beijing’s strongly-worded reaction suggested it is losing patience with its communist neighbour.

South Korea is also likely to review its Sunshine Policy towards Pyongyang. This was made known by President Roh Moo Hyun after his talks with visiting Japanese Premier Abe.  Abe in response said that he would be urging the UN to consider “harsh measures” against North Korea

The reality is of course whatever actions or sanctions Japan recommended, they will only have a chance to work if both China and South Korea endorse and back them. 

North Korea’s timing and announcement of the nuclear test also took the joy out of Mr Ban Ki Moon’s nomination by the UN Security Council to succeed Mr Kofi Annan as the next Secretary-General.  But, dealing with North Korea’s belligerence would be one of the tough jobs that Mr Ban has to deal with and which would really test his leadership skill and diplomatic creativity.

Sources:

Chinese president meets Japanese PM (People’s Daily, 8 October 2006)

Senior Japanese official sees Abe's China visit an opportunity to mend ties (People’s Daily, 8 October 2006)

Chinese premier, Japanese PM hold talks in Beijing (People’s Daily, 8 October 2006)

Abe says JapanChina closely-related (People’s Daily, 8 October 2006)

Presentation by Mr Zhu Yan (Senior Researcher, Fujitsu Research) at the National Library of Singapore on Sunday 8 October 20062-5 pm

Japanese PM to pay official visit to China (People’s Daily, 5 October 2006)

The right kind of nationalism (Japan Times, 5 October 2006)

Japanese PM to visit China (People's Daily, 4 October 2006)

Abe vague on history issue in Diet debate (Asahi, 3 October 2006)

EDITORIAL/ Abe's vague views (Asahi, 4 October 2006)

Mr. Abe keeps them guessing (Japan Times, 4 October 2006)

Abe noncommittal on war stance (Japan Times, 4 October 2006)

North Korea conducts first nuclear test (STI, 9 October 2006)

Warm reception a calculated gamble (ST 10 October 2006)

N Korea takes joy out of Ban’s moment (ST 10 October 2006)

Test casts cloud over Seoul’s Sunshine Policy (ST 10 October 2006)

Beijing would now get tough with Pyongyang (ST 10 October 2006)