Stop the fudge about visiting shrine, Mr Abe

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2007, 12:00am

That Premier Wen Jiabao will visit his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Japan this week is a diplomatic achievement in itself. While those hoping for dramatic or concrete progress in Sino-Japanese relations may be disappointed, the importance of the visit should not be underestimated.

Just eight months ago, such a trip would have been hard to imagine. Mr Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, appeared at the Yasukuni Shrine to Japan's war dead in front of a cheering crowd of far-right nationalists, confirming the worst fears of Chinese leaders despite earlier signs of warmth at the start of his five-year tenure.

Even before Mr Abe took office, Beijing worked delicately to let Mr Abe know he would start with a clean slate; his conservatism and assertive Japanese nationalism, and his past enthusiasm for visiting the Tokyo shrine, which honours among 2.5 million souls 14 class-A war criminals, would not be held against him. As long as he did not visit Yasukuni, there was plenty of room to get East Asia's most important diplomatic relationship back on track.

To his credit, Mr Abe acknowledged the signals. Both sides realised there was more to gain from active diplomacy than the big chill. This week's visit is the fruit of those early moves, which also included a visit by Mr Abe to Beijing within weeks of taking office.

Still, there can only be guarded optimism about the future. The run-up to Mr Wen's three-day visit has been marked by differences just as much as by areas of potential progress.

While the two sides are expected to agree on new steps to economic integration and co-operation in the East China Sea, where a dispute over gas deposits is simmering, Chinese concerns over Yasukuni and Japanese fears of China's military build-up have assumed a worrying prominence.

The creation of a formal economic forum loosely modelled on the US-China strategic dialogue bears close attention. In the past 18 months, China has become Japan's biggest trading partner. It will be also important to see whether Mr Wen offers any support for Japan's push for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council or responds positively to its demand for information on Japanese kidnap victims in North Korea - issues close to Mr Abe's heart.

As we report today, Mr Abe has again refused to rule out visiting Yasukuni as premier. This is a nagging problem which threatens to put relations back in the deep freeze. It is a reminder, too, of the contradictions at the core of Mr Abe's vision.

On the one hand he wants improved relations with China, South Korea and the rest of the region. On the other, he wants a more proudly nationalistic and assertive Japan. Reconciling the two is not going to be easy, but undoubtedly a successful trip this week will go a long way to helping get past those contradictions. Were Mr Abe to sweep away China's concerns he may visit Yasukuni by ruling out going to the shrine, he would accelerate that process and at the same time show a strength of conviction which his domestic audience may appreciate.

It must be remembered that top-level visits to Yasukuni are far from traditional. Many prime ministers and members of the imperial family have given the shrine a wide berth.

If Mr Abe again shows reticence about declaring his intentions with regard to visits to the shrine, he risks creating a precedent Japan's future political leaders will find ever harder to set aside.