Japan, neighbouring countries still have much to resolve

PHOTO: Reuters

On the evening of Aug. 14, Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki summoned Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua to the ministry and explained the content of the statement to be issued by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The statement had been approved by the Cabinet just before this. Saiki also summoned the ambassadors of the United States and South Korea on Aug. 14, but deftly changed the path to the meeting room so the envoys would not know the order in which they visited.

Cheng read through the statement and pointed out a section where Taiwan and China were mentioned as "our neighbours." He asked, "Why is Taiwan mentioned before China?" and Saiki replied, "Taiwan was put under Japan's colonial rule earlier than China." Cheng did not pursue the point further but only said, "I understand," and left the ministry. The reactions of China and South Korea to the statement, which touched on "aggression" and "apology," were restrained.

On Sept. 2, when Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye held talks in Beijing during the South Korean leader's visit to attend a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of China's "victory in the War of Resistance against Japan," they agreed to restart three-way summit talks.

A Japanese government source said that thanks to "muffling of the 'Abe tone' of the statement,' China and South Korea softened their stances. It was a great success."

Despite the development of this conciliatory attitude, however, there are currently no prospects for Japan to solve its diplomatic problems. Chinese government ships have continued to intrude into the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands, and China has unilaterally developed offshore platforms in gas fields bordering the Japan-China median line in the East China Sea.

China may be facing an economic downturn and "will surely try to strengthen economic co-operation with Japanese companies by adjusting its political pressure against Japan," according to a senior Foreign Ministry official.

Meanwhile, South Korea has not given way over the issue of so-called comfort women. The prime minister needs to come up with strategies to steer the current conciliatory mood toward Japan's national interests.

Abe is also keen to solve the northern territories issue, but a number of Russia's key political figures have recently visited the territories, bogging down efforts to coordinate a visit to Japan this year by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Japan-Russia diplomatic sources see the recent actions by key Russian government officials as an attempt "to gain the upper hand in diplomatic negotiations by demonstrating the claim that the territories are Russia's." Abe needs to nail down Putin's true intent at future summit talks.

In the two years and eight months since Abe's second term as prime minister began, he has promoted diplomatic policies incorporating economic growth overseas. Regarding the nation's security, the Abe administration has revised the Guidelines for Japan-US Defence Cooperation for the first time in 18 years to reinforce the Japan-US alliance. Over the next three years of his term, Abe must continue to tackle the challenges of improving relations with neighbouring countries, as well as making progress on the northern territories and the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents.

In autumn, Abe is to attend a series of summit-level meetings including the UN General Assembly, the Group of 20 major nations and regions, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Abe will be tested on whether he can take advantage of these favourable opportunities to produce diplomatic results.