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New leaders hold key to Asia-Pacific ties

Publication Date : 10-01-2013


Essential place for diplomacy will be Japan

A flurry of leadership changes in Asia-Pacific countries last year could shake up diplomacy in the region, presenting both a fresh chance to break deadlocks and the risk that regional tensions will continue to increase, experts said.

Most of the new leaders have signaled a readiness to repair ties that have been overshadowed by territorial and historic issues as well as the "pivot toward Asia" being pursued by external powers.

But it remains unclear whether the changes that will come about this year will be for the better, experts added.

Last year saw leadership changes in Russia, the United States, China, Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK).

The essential place for diplomacy in 2013 will be Japan. It is the only one of those countries in which an opposition party took power last year and thus the only one in which sweeping changes are likely to be made to its foreign policy, said Qu Xing, president of the China Institute of International Studies.

Shinzo Abe, the new Japanese Prime Minister, has taken centre stage. His country is now in a logjam over territorial disputes with three of its neighbours: China, the ROK and Russia. Abe's "scarily right-wing" stance now has Asia and the world on alert, according to the Economist.

"To describe the new government as 'conservative' hardly captures its true character," the Economist wrote in a recent article. "This is a cabinet of 'radical nationalists'."

Abe has made no secret of his wish to challenge post-war arrangements by taking steps such as rewriting Japan's pacifist constitution, increasing military spending, changing the name of the country's Self-Defence Forces to the national defence forces and replacing a 1995 apology for suffering Japan caused in Asia during World War II with an unspecified "forward-looking statement".

Yet, despite his tough talk, Abe may take a more pragmatic approach to improving Japan's disheartening relations with its neighbours, said Wang Junsheng, a researcher in East Asian studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The BBC recently reported that in 2007, during his first term as prime minister, Abe had worked to repair Japan's tattered relations with China, and it said he may try to do so again.

Abe's Democratic Party of Japan will probably also have an easier time trying to mend fences with China. The party, in its more than half a century in power, has had time to develop sound communication channels and contacts with China, said Zhou Weihong, a Japan specialist at Beijing Foreign Studies University, according to Agence France-Presse.

Shi Yinhong, an expert on international politics at Renmin University of China, said Abe has positioned China as "Tokyo's top target in Asia", making it difficult for the countries to take anything but a confrontational stance toward each other.

Tokyo's relations with Beijing soured in September after it illegally "purchased" the Diaoyu Islands, which have belonged to China for centuries. Meanwhile, the Abe administration is working with the ROK and Southeast Asia to encircle China.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida started on a trip to the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei and Australia yesterday, and Abe himself is scheduled to make his first trips abroad as prime minister by travelling to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

Some of these countries have competing claims with China over parts of the South China Sea.

Sovereignty issues

Abe also intends to visit Russia in April or May to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin about disputes over the sovereignty of four Pacific islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and Southern Kuril Islands in Russia.

Last week, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso concluded a visit to Myanmar and former Japanese finance minister Fukushiro Nukaga wrapped up a trip to the ROK in which he acted as the prime minister's special envoy.

ROK Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said on Friday that he remains cautious about the prospects of improving his country's strained ties with Japan. Various signs have emerged suggesting how difficult a rapprochement will be to bring about.

A 63-year-old ROK activist recently stabbed himself in Seoul, Yonhap News Agency reported, in a protest over the envoy's visit.

The Nation newspaper in Bangkok warned in an editorial on December 31 that the future of Asia could be endangered if China, Japan and the ROK continue to be uncomfortable with one another.

Asia will continue to loom large on Washington's policy horizon this year. US President Barack Obama will find himself freer in his final term in office to aggressively pursue his policy of pivoting toward Asia.

The US, the biggest external power for the Asia-Pacific region, does not want to see Asia slip out of control or China threaten its global influence, Wang Junsheng said.

"Both the US and Russia will be paying a lot of attention to the Far East," Shi Yinhong said. "The former will do so mainly out of economic interests and the latter mainly for strategic reasons, including keeping China's rapid growth in check."

Putin, who was sworn in for a third term as Russian president in May, has pledged to develop Russia's depressed eastern Siberian and far east regions by having the country become more involved with economies in Asia, which include China, Japan and the ROK.

The plans call for new laws and tax reforms, among other changes.

Shi said the territorial disputes between Russia and Japan may even come to be perceived as being negligible against the backdrop of the potential benefits of economic cooperation.

Obama, meanwhile, has placed a priority on maintaining the security of the Asia-Pacific region, proposing to do so by strengthening the United States' long-standing alliances with Japan and the ROK, as well as reaching out to new potential partners such as Vietnam.

Obama is looking to other places in the region as well. Fresh from his re-election victory in November, he became the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar.

Washington's tactics here result from the belief that the best way to manage China will be to establish a system that encourages it to play by the rules set collectively by its neighbours, Ernest Z. Bower, senior adviser and chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said in an article.

Yet, despite repeated statements about the "constructive role" China can play in Asia, the increasing US military presence and frequent drills with other countries have aggravated regional tensions.

The US can only play a small role in repairing Tokyo and Seoul's strained relations in the face of strong public opposition to a reconcilliation from the ROK, Wang said.

The new ROK chief, Park Geun-hye, who is perceived as not being as hard-line as her predecessor, has urged Japan to "squarely face" the two nations' shared history.

Experts said Obama may take lessons from his first term as president and adjust his Asian "rebalancing" policy, but Washington's greater emphasis on Asia in the next four years will further complicate regional difficulties.

Looming hope

The place that has the greatest potential for progress in Asia-Pacific diplomacy this year is the Korean Peninsula, experts said.

Park and her counterpart in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un, have expressed a willingness to ease tensions between their countries and leave behind their differences, the experts added.

Kim Jong-un, after succeeding his late father, Kim Jong-il, at the end of 2011, has provided evidence that he has a softer side than his father.

The young leader has attended a concert featuring Disney characters, visited a kindergarten and a park with his wife and revived Kim Il-sung's former practice of addressing the nation on New Year's Day.

His speech on improving the poor country's economy and relations with the ROK has led to speculation that Pyongyang is planning to change direction in 2013.

But Evans J.R. Revere, senior director with the global strategy firm Albright Stonebridge Group, said in an article that Kim Jong-un's statements are merely the latest manifestation of his ability to "channel" his late grandfather, noting that he has adopted many of Kim Il-sung's mannerisms, style of dress, gregarious way of dealing with subordinates and even his haircut.

The consistency of Pyongyang's foreign policies was seen in the two rockets it launched in 2012, which were criticised by much of the international community.

Now, though, many countries are expecting to see a long-awaited breakthrough in talks over Pyongyang's nuclear programme and the Korean Peninsula's stability. If so, it is unlikely that Pyongyang will come under further sanctions, as long as it ceases to conduct nuclear tests, Shi said.

The Six-Party Talks, which involved the six countries that saw leadership changes last year, began in 2003 but stalled in December 2008 amid frictions between Washington and Pyongyang.

Park stressed the importance of rebuilding trust between Seoul and Pyongyang, although she said her country must remain firm on certain issues.

Obama declared in November that the US would reach out to Pyongyang if it ended its nuclear weapons programme.

John Kerry, Obama's nominee for US secretary of state, is expected to be softer on Pyongyang than his predecessor Hillary Clinton, according to the ROK newspaper The Hankyoreh.

Improved relations between China and the ROK may also help to ease tensions in the region, said Steve Tsang, professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies and director of the University of Nottingham's China policy institute.

China's approach

Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University, said Beijing is faced with grim diplomatic prospects and needs to adopt flexible policies that can lessen the chances of getting into a conflict while still working to protect its legitimate interests.

Xi Jinping, the newly elected head of the Communist Party of China, has not elaborated exclusively on foreign policy during his first weeks in office.

But remarks he made during his first meeting with foreigners - a group of foreign experts - in December, have been widely perceived as sending a strong signal that China cherishes its ties with foreign countries and people, and will continue on its road of opening-up and cooperating with the outside world.

He also said countries should take the legitimate concerns of other countries into account when they pursue their own interests.

Speaking of the Diaoyu Islands dispute with Japan, for instance, Xi urged Japan in September to control its behaviour and stop saying or doing things that could undermine China's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Kyodo News Agency said Xi's remarks about Japan suggest Beijing will not back down on the issue - at least for a while.

Rana Mitter, professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University, said it is also important that the new leadership in China and Japan "remember the trade and economic links between the two, and keep relations calm through creative, non-confrontational diplomacy".


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