April 23, 2014 12:38 am JST

Leaders must work together now to solve Asia crisis: Fukuda

KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei staff writer

YANGZHOU, China -- Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda says that only political leadership can solve the tension between Japan and its neighbors China and South Korea, and the time to act is now.

     In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review on the sidelines of the Northeast Asia Trilateral Forum here, Fukuda stressed that if the current situation is left unattended, the rift will go on forever.

     "It's now up to the political leaders of Japan, China and South Korea to solve this issue," he said, regarding what could be the worst state of relations in Northeast Asia in decades. "The friction can be a short-term thing if the leaders put their collective foot down and decide to get over it. It's their responsibility to do so."

     While saying that Sino-Japanese relations are nowhere near the brink of exploding, he acknowledges that it may look so from other parts of the world.

     "Japanese people lack a sense of crisis," he said. "They see the happy, peaceful life around them and don't worry about the worsening relationship with our neighbors. But people in other parts of the world do see this as a crisis, and the mere fact that they do is a serious issue."

     Fukuda pressed the importance of personal trust between leaders and talked about his own relationship with Hu Jintao, China's president from 2003 to 2013. "We trusted each other, and that's why things moved ahead," he said.

     In May 2008, while Fukuda was prime minister, Hu made the first official visit to Japan by a Chinese president in over a decade. The two signed a joint statement calling for a "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests." The statement, alongside the first joint communique in 1972 that established diplomatic relations between Japan and the People's Republic of China, is counted as one of the four statements that guide the relationship.

     "The key," Fukuda said, "is to think about the other person's situation when you talk. Mr. Hu could trust what I said, and the visit simply would not have happened if there were no trust between us."

     Fukuda, 77, retired from the Diet, Japan's parliament, in November 2012 and has since become the point man for Sino-Japanese relations, visiting China dozens of times. He was in southern China earlier this month as chairman of the Boao Forum for Asia.

     "I think of this as my job and my responsibility," he said of his frequent visits. "Japan's safety and stability relies on the stable, orderly development of our neighbors."

     The Northeast Asia Trilateral Forum, co-sponsored by the Nikkei, China's Xinhua News Agency and South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo, closed Tuesday afternoon after issuing a joint statement calling for the resumption of high-level meetings among Japan, China and South Korea. The forum welcomed the launch of free trade talks among the three countries, and identified building a Northeast Asia Community with a common destiny as the long-term strategic goal.

     The forum, in its ninth year, has previously selected 808 of the most commonly used Chinese characters in the three nations, to be shared among the younger generation to lay the foundation for a further understanding of language and culture. In Tuesday's working-group sessions, forum members discussed ways to promote the list. Holding calligraphy contests at schools, using the characters for all road signs and promoting them during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were some of the ideas floated.