Japan's Abe faces critical year for diplomacy

Important diplomatic issues for Japan today include improving ties with China and South Korea and strengthening its alliance with the United States.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to release an "Abe statement" to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, though it could invite backlash depending on its content.

In any case, 2015 is shaping up to be a crucial year for strategic diplomacy.

A senior Foreign Ministry official described the government's basic diplomatic policy for this year: "Some countries are deploying campaigns to damage any trust [in Japan] by calling up an image of the Japan from more than 70 years ago. We intend to express our position clearly, pointing proudly to our pacifist Constitution and the global contributions we have made since the war."

The government is most concerned about China and South Korea escalating their criticism of Japan over historical issues, particularly as they often have public opinion on their side in Western countries.

"This year, China will use a variety of opportunities to get across both hard and soft messages," a source with ties to the Japanese government predicted.

There were signs of improvement in ties between Japan and China last year, with the realisation of the first summit meeting between the nations' leaders in three years.

But if the Chinese government becomes too friendly with Japan, it could backfire domestically.

Therefore, analysts believe the Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping will remain prepared to play the "history card," if needed.

Last year, China declared Sept 3 to be "Victory over Japan Day" - this being the day after Japan signed surrender documents ending WWII - and Dec 13 as the "national day of mourning," commemorating the day when the Nanjing Incident involving the Imperial Japanese Army took place.

On May 9, China is planning to cohost with Russia a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of its victory over Germany in Moscow. China has also sought South Korea's cooperation in "resisting Japan" over historical issues.

In such a situation, the Japanese government is planning to take the utmost care in crafting the Abe statement, which is to commemorate 70 years since the end of the war.

On the 50th anniversary, the Murayama statement expressed "deep remorse" and "heartfelt apology" for its colonial rule and military invasions.

The Koizumi statement issued on the 60th anniversary adhered to the Murayama statement.

Abe has said his message will basically follow these statements, but will also place focus on the future.

The government plans to establish a working group of specialists in history and diplomacy to help craft the statement, and will seek opinions from a wide range of figures, sources said.

Following past precedent, the statement is expected to be announced on Aug 15, the anniversary of the end of the war, and will focus on Japan's 70 years as a peaceful nation.

Meanwhile, Abe is continuing to try to realise a summit meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye. The leaders of Japan and South Korea have not met formally since the second Abe administration was launched in December 2012.

However, Park has shown no signs of yielding in her desire for concessions from Japan over the so-called comfort women issue.

Although it may be difficult for either Japan or South Korea to compromise, a source with ties to the Japanese government said: "It's an aberration for the leaders of neighbouring countries not to meet. We'd like to create a starting point for dialogue soon."

Feb 22 is Shimane Prefecture's Takeshima Day, which South Korea is expected to protest, as usual.

Then on March 1 a ceremony is planned in South Korea to commemorate the "March 1st Movement" of 1919, which involved Korean resistance to Japanese colonial rule.

Anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea is expected to heighten as the year passes, further raising the barrier to a Japan-South Korea summit meeting.

As for relations with the United States, the government hopes to have Abe visit Washington this year - his first trip in two years - to strengthen the Japan-US alliance and promote stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

The government is trying to secure a visit during the Golden Week holiday period in May, so as to highlight how Japan and the United States went from enemy nations to friendly allies, before China's and South Korea's offensive against Japan is expected to heat up in the summer.

The government plans to delay submitting national security legislation to enable the limited exercise of the right of collective self-defence under the Guidelines for Japan-US Defence Cooperation until after the unified local elections in April.

This would provide a specific benchmark to show the strengthening of the Japan-US alliance.

The government also hopes to wrap up contentious negotiations with the United States over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact so a course can be set to settling the overall talks soon.

This would be another potential achievement for Abe in the United States.

No sign of results in abductee investigation

Japan's diplomacy is approaching a critical point in relations with North Korea and Russia.

The Japanese side has specified a deadline of one year for the re-investigation into Japanese abductees by North Korea, which started in July last year.

In October, a Japanese government delegation visited Pyongyang and called for the North Korean government to conduct the re-investigation promptly, but there are no prospects in sight for any specific explanations from North Korea.

Regarding diplomatic ties with Russia, which involve the issue of the northern territories, the two governments agreed at the Japan-Russia summit meeting in November that Russian President Vladimir Putin would visit Japan at an "appropriate time" this year.

The Japanese government is expected to have difficulty deciding the timing of Putin's visit to Japan due to coordination with the United States and Europe over the situation in Ukraine.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to decide as early as this spring on the venue for the Group of Seven summit meeting to be held in Japan in 2016.

Municipalities including Sendai and Hiroshima are seeking to host the event.