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Two leaders honoured for reforms and diplomacy

Their ability to work together will also have great impact on Asia.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China's President Xi Jinping are joint winners of The Straits Times' Asian of the Year award.

Making an exception to the practice of picking a single winner, Straits Times editors chose the two leaders for this year's award.

The reason: both men have made major contributions through their reforms at home, as well as their diplomacy around the region.

But their success, and the hopes for peace and prosperity in Asia and the world, now also rest with them being able to work together to manage the testy relations between their two countries.

"Both men have unveiled sweeping reform agendas at home, while seeking to boost their respective country's influence abroad," said Mr Warren Fernandez, editor of The Straits Times.

"The policies they seek to implement, if successful, would impact millions of people in wider Asia, and contribute to a better future."

The Straits Times awards the Asian of the Year honour every December to a person or organisation who has contributed significantly to the Asian continent. The Straits Times, founded in 1845, is uniquely placed to make the award, given its commitment to covering the region, and the resources it had devoted over the years to doing so, he said.

Last year, the inaugural Asian of the Year award went to Myanmar's President Thein Sein for his role in loosening political and economic fetters in his country.

Mr Xi took charge of China in November last year while Mr Abe rose to power a few weeks later. Early in their tenures, both men signalled the extraordinary importance they place on ties with Asean.

Mr Abe, in his second stint as prime minister, has visited every Asean country since taking office. When Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, he ordered one of the biggest peacetime mobilisations of troops to aid his Asian neighbour. In May, he announced that Japan would cancel the government debt owed it by Myanmar.

Mr Xi, sharing his travels with Premier Li Keqiang, has also been travelling across Asia. In October, he was honoured as the first foreign leader to address the legislature of South-east Asia's biggest nation, Indonesia. China is also emerging as a significant partner in Asia's infrastructure development.

At no time in recent memory have the two big Asian powers lavished so much attention on their continental peers.

In announcing them as joint winners, ST editors are also fully aware of the political differences that divide them, most recently witnessed in the tensions over China's air defence identification zone.

"Being joint Asians of the Year is also a reminder to both that they have a responsibility to not let their differences get out of hand," said Mr Fernandez. "Asia, and the world, cannot afford a further deterioration in their relationship. In fact, Asians hope to see an improvement in Sino-Japan ties in the year ahead."

"We would be delighted if this award spurs both men to consider meeting, or sending a note or placing a congratulatory call to each other."

velloor@sph.com.sg