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International relations

Asian neighbors wish departing Abe well -- and eye Japan's next PM

China says resignation is Tokyo's 'internal affair' as others offer praise

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at center in the blue suit, poses with Asian leaders in Bangkok last November. (Pool photo)

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to step down for health reasons on Friday elicited a mixture of reactions -- some warmer than others -- from governments, business leaders and experts across the region.

Most offered get-well-soon messages to Japan's longest-serving premier, whose physical condition had been the subject of much speculation in recent weeks. Some, including two of Japan's closest neighbors, appeared to have one eye on who will fill Abe's shoes.

"I am sorry about Prime Minster Abe's abrupt announcement to resign," Kang Min-seok, a spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in's office, said in a statement. Ties between Abe's and Moon's governments have been strained, largely over wartime grievances. Without elaborating, Kang said Abe "left many meaningful achievements" and "played many roles for the development of bilateral relations."

"I wish Prime Minister Abe a quick recovery," Kang said, adding, "Our government will continue to cooperate with the new prime minister of Japan and the new cabinet for the improvement of friendly and cooperative relations between the two countries."

China's foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian had less to say, according to state broadcaster CCTV. Zhao told reporters on Friday that China would not comment on Abe's departure, saying, "It is Japan's internal affair."

Zhao did say that "China and Japan are close neighbors, and China is willing to work with Japan to continue to promote the development of China-Japan relations."

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen's office was more effusive in its statement. "President Tsai sincerely thanks Prime Minister Abe for his strong support for our country, and his contribution to pushing good Taiwan-Japan relations. The president hopes Prime Minister Abe takes good care and wishes him a speedy recovery for good health."

Likewise, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posted on Facebook that he was "sorry" to learn the news.

"I have worked well with Mr. Abe for close to nine years," Lee wrote. "Under his leadership, our bilateral relations have deepened." Lee went on to note that Abe played a critical role in concluding the revamped Trans-Pacific Partnership after the U.S. withdrew from the original pact.

"I wish Abe-san a good recovery as he begins treatment for his condition," he wrote.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called Abe "a man of integrity and wisdom."

"He has been the senior statesman in our region and across the globe, a strong promoter of open trade and an outstanding international diplomat for Japan," Morrison said. He also gave Abe credit for Japan's response to the health and economic impacts of COVID-19.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach weighed in, too, giving Abe credit for his role in Tokyo's successful bid for the now-delayed 2020 Summer Games.

"His engagement was crucial to making the Tokyo Organizing Committee the best prepared ever," Bach wrote. "Throughout these years, Prime Minister Abe was a strong partner who always stood up for the interests of Japan, and who at the same time could always be trusted. In this way, we were able to find solutions, even in the most difficult circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic."

One of the quickest to respond was Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. On Twitter, he called Abe a "very good friend" of his country and its president, Rodrigo Duterte. Describing Abe as an "imposing political presence in person," Locsin called Abe "Japan's greatest post-war PM."

Duterte's presidential communications secretary, Martin Andanar, later issued a statement calling Abe a "close friend" of the Philippine leader.

"Throughout Prime Minister Abe's tenure, we saw a robust furtherance of the holistic relations between the Philippines and Japan," Andanar said. "With that, Japan has continued to maintain itself as an important and trusted ally of the Philippines not only in our mutual socio-economic prosperity, but also towards the promotion of a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific region."

While extending "prayers" for Abe's recovery, the secretary added, "We remain optimistic that our relations with Japan will continue to flourish and deepen, even though Prime Minister Abe has decided to vacate his post."

From the business community in Southeast Asia, Suphant Mongkolsuthree, the chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries, said he did not expect to see a big change in Japanese policies, especially in terms of investment.

"Japanese investment outside Japan is an issue that has been decided as a long-term policy," he told the Nikkei Asian Review. He said he expects the next prime minister will "continue with the same polices in order to support Japan's economy," though he said he would watch for any changes that might have short-term effects.

From India, author Shamshad Ahmad Khan said the leadership change is "unlikely to have any adverse impact" on India-Japan ties.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Abe have long emphasized their close personal bond -- a sentiment that came through in a Modi tweet about Abe's resignation. "Pained to hear about your ill health, my dear friend," Modi wrote.

Still, Khan, who penned a book titled "Changing Dynamics of India-Japan-Relations," stressed that "the relationship has been institutionalized following the 2006 signing of the India-Japan strategic partnership, which mandates the two nations to have an annual summit-level meeting alternating between New Delhi and Tokyo."

Khan also noted that many potential Abe successors are used to working with India.

Defense Minister Taro Kono, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba "have dealt with India in different capacities and they are no strangers to Indian leadership."

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