Abe's 'diplomatic power' to be put to the test: The Yomiuri Shimbun

This spring, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become the second longest-serving leader after German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Group of Seven advanced nations.
This spring, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become the second longest-serving leader after German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Group of Seven advanced nations.PHOTO: AFP

In its editorial on Jan 10, the paper discusses some of the issues Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will have to address in discussions with the United States, Russia, China and South Korea in order to pursue the country's national interests.

Due to the advent of the United States administration to be launched by President-elect Donald Trump, Japanese foreign policy will enter "unknown territory." There is still no telling how Japan's relations with neighbouring countries will unfold.

This spring, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become the second longest-serving leader after German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Group of Seven advanced nations. The question is how Abe will work to produce specific achievements, utilising his vast experience gained during four years in office since his return to power as prime minister. The genuine value of his diplomatic power will be tested.

Abe's most important task is to facilitate relation-building with three foreign leaders - Trump, who will be inaugurated as US president on January 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. A tough strategy and strong negotiating ability will be needed to pursue Japan's national interests, based on the fostering of international cooperation.

Arrangements are being coordinated for the prime minister to visit the US and hold talks with Trump as early as late this month. During his presidential election campaign, Trump referred to a possible withdrawal of US forces stationed in Japan. There is a need to properly explain to Trump about the significance of the Japan-US alliance as an important deterrent to China, which is attempting to change the status quo by force in the South and East China seas.

Similar efforts will also be necessary for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact, from which Trump has said he will withdraw the US. Besides the benefits of free trade, it should be explained to him that the TPP treaty constitutes part of a medium- and long-term strategy for dealing with China, thereby improving his understanding in this respect.

The prime minister will start a round of visits to the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam on Thursday. During these visits, he plans to confirm the importance of maintaining order in the South China Sea, based on the rule of law. It is important for him to share this perception with Trump regarding the Asian situation.

To reinforce the Japan-US alliance, it is indispensable for Japan to facilitate improvement in its defence capabilities and increase reciprocal cooperation with the United States.

In late December, the government decided on procedural guidelines for the "protection of weapons and others" by the Self-Defence Forces in the defence of US warships and others in peacetime and grey-zone situations under military security-related legislation. It is important for Japan and the United States to repeatedly conduct joint exercises to increase the effectiveness of the guidelines.

This year will mark a crucial juncture in a plan to relocate the US Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station to the Henoko area of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture.

As early as February, construction work on the main part of an alternative facility building project will begin in the sea, responding to the action taken by Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga to retract his earlier revocation of the approval for reclamation work. The governor's move came after he had lost the case at the Supreme Court.

The transfer of the Futenma base to Henoko is the only realistic means of achieving the return of the facility to Japan at an early date. Steady progress must be made in the relocation work.

In negotiations with Russia over the northern territories, the environment should be improved for settling the issue, while adhering to the principle of promoting progress on the territorial issue in parallel with economic cooperation with Russia.

On the basis of the bilateral talks held in December, the Japanese and Russian governments will put into full swing talks over joint economic activities on the four northern islands and work to bring about the expansion of visa-free visits to the islands by people including former residents of the islands.

It will not be easy to realise joint economic activities under a "special system" that does not undermine Japan's legal stance on the territories. Russia is also striking a firm stance.

Abe is considering visiting Russia sometime in the first half of this year. He will seek to hold several talks with Putin, including some on the sidelines of international conferences. By tenaciously holding talk after talk and urging the top leader to make his decision, a breakthrough on the issues should be found.

Meanwhile, Japan and China will see the 45th anniversary of the normalisation of their bilateral diplomatic relations in September. With the 40th anniversary of the Japan-China peace and friendship treaty approaching in August next year, it is imperative for both countries to have the will to reach a compromise and make efforts accordingly by taking the basic positions of a "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests."

A point currently at issue is whether a Japan-China-South Korea trilateral meeting in Tokyo, which was postponed in mid-December, can be held soon, realising the first visit to Japan by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

The Japanese government will aim to bring about Prime Minister Abe's visit to China within this year and Xi's first visit as president to Japan next year. The Chinese side is also said to be positive about improving bilateral ties with Japan, centring around the economic field.

Building up mutual visits of leaders to each other's countries can also build confidence among cabinet members, government officials and business leaders of both countries and invigourate bilateral talks.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that China has continuously made military provocations, including through its fighter planes, and had its government vessels enter Japan's territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands. China should exercise self-restraint, as such actions only increase Japan's distrust.

It is urgently needed to put into operation a "maritime and air liaison mechanism" between the defence authorities of both countries, aimed at preventing contingencies.

The bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea are worrisome.

A South Korean civic group, opposed to the deal both countries reached on the comfort women issue, has forcibly erected a statue of a girl symbolising the comfort women in front of the Japanese Consulate General in Busan, South Korea. The Japanese government has taken measures such as the temporary return to Japan of its Ambassador to South Korea.

As long as the South Korean government is reluctant to remove the statue, it is inevitable for such countermeasures to be taken.

There have also been calls within South Korea, from opposition parties and others, to rescind the general security of military information agreement (GSOMIA) signed by both countries.

As North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and test-fired more than 20 ballistic missiles last year, threats from North Korea have increased. South Korea should recognise that if its relations with Japan are shaken, it will hinder the country's own defence.

It is regrettable that there has been no progress on the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea. The families of the abduction victims have also advanced in age. Solutions to the issue should be steadfastly explored.

The Yomiuri Shimbun is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 news media entities.