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Japan PM Takes Careful Approach on China

By ALEXANDER MARTIN, TOKYO (WSJ): Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe showed during a three-nation tour of Southeast Asia last week that while he seeks a more assertive Japanese presence in the region, he isn’t about to provoke China or risk worsening already strained relations between Tokyo and Beijing.

Mr. Abe’s trip to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia indicated Tokyo’s growing interest in the rapidly developing region, which in recent years has seen an increase in China’s presence in the form of aid and economic activity.

The trip, cut short Friday by the crisis in Algeria where Japanese were among those killed, took him to a region that, like Japan, has territorial disputes with China.

Tokyo is facing intensifying pressure from Beijing over islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, while Southeast Asian nations are increasingly concerned about China’s ambitions in the oil-rich South China Sea, one of the world’s most important shipping lanes.

“China’s rise is definitely a plus, economically, for Japan, but it also needs to act responsibly as a member of the international community,” Mr. Abe said Friday following a meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta, where he listed the principles for his new administration’s Asia diplomacy. The principles call for expanding “universal values” such as freedom, democracy and human rights, and keeping sea lanes in the region free and open in line with international law.

Mr. Abe used the bilateral meetings to enhance economic and strategic ties with his Southeast Asian counterparts in an apparent bid to counter China’s increasing clout in the area’s sea lanes, pledging increased aid to the nations while stressing Japan’s resolve to play a larger role to ensure “peace and stability” in the region.

“The trip turned out as expected—forging multilateral partnerships with nations in the region is central for Mr. Abe’s strategy in dealing with China’s growing maritime presence,” said Mineo Nakajima, president of Akita International University.

But Mr. Abe was also careful not to increase tension with China. During his trip he stressed that relations between the two nations remain among Japan’s “most important bilateral ties” and that any issues will be dealt with “calmly.”

His efforts to ease the friction also appeared evident when Japanese media on Saturday reported that he had asked a political ally to tell Chinese leaders he is seeking a bilateral summit to improve diplomatic ties. Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of junior coalition party New Komeito, is scheduled to visit China from Tuesday with Mr. Abe’s message.

Mr. Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party swept to power last month on a nationalist platform calling for beefing up military spending and revising the nation’s pacifist constitution. Those policies have alarmed some of Japan’s neighbors, such as China and South Korea, which hold bitter memories of Japan’s past militarism and wartime aggression.

Beijing was quick to react to Mr. Abe’s calls to expand “universal values,” with the People’s Daily saying in a commentary Saturday that “under the mask of ‘values,'” Mr. Abe’s policies attempt to pull in Southeast Asian countries and “encircle China.” “Sadly, this whimsical idea has no market in Southeast Asia,” it said.

After taking office last month, Mr. Abe had intended to go first to Washington to boost the security alliance with Japan’s main ally. But with the trip postponed because of President Barack Obama’s busy schedule, he chose Southeast Asia instead as Japan looks to the region for new sources of growth for its own stagnant economy, and as an alternative to investment in China, where anti-Japanese riots triggered by the territorial row have damaged trade.

“Energizing Japan’s regional diplomacy will be welcomed here in Washington as many have felt Tokyo has been a quieter partner of late because of its domestic challenges,” said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Published Date: Sunday, January 20th, 2013 | 06:30 AM

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