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Japan after Abe

Continuity or reset? China and South Korea face a post-Abe Japan

Beijing sees Ishiba as front runner while Seoul hopes to mend frayed ties

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are both hoping to shore up ties with Japan's next leader.   © Reuters

BEIJING/SEOUL -- China and South Korea have started to seek ways to realign diplomatic relations with Japan following Shinzo Abe's abrupt decision to step down as prime minister.

Abe's announcement on Friday that he would resign sent shock waves through the diplomatic world. China's relationship with Japan has been historically fraught with tension, although ties had improved under Abe.

Now, Beijing is reportedly collecting information to assess prospects for the post-Abe succession. Improving its relationship with Tokyo continues to be a top priority for Beijing amid the escalating trade war with the U.S.

China apparently has explored the possibility of a summit between President Xi Jinping and Japan's new prime minister, as Xi's state visit to Tokyo in April was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

China's official Xinhua News Agency reported Friday that "Abe's biggest rival [Shigeru] Ishiba has an advantage," as Abe's successor. Xinhua sees Ishiba, a former defense minister and secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party, as a potential candidate given his popularity in recent public opinion polls.

In July, Ishiba drew attention from Japan watchers in China when he had publicly disapproved of calls to cancel Xi's visit to Japan by ruling Liberal Democratic Party's foreign affairs division over Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong. A Chinese government-affiliated think tank official said Ishiba would not try to change Tokyo's current approach toward Beijing, in case he was appointed.

Meanwhile, South Korea is looking to mend frayed ties with Japan amid what experts are calling the worst crisis between two nations since the diplomatic normalization of 1965.

On Saturday, South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo said in an editorial that the souring of ties were because of the attitudes of the leaders, adding the nations "should immediately start dialogue by taking advantage of change in Japan's leader."

This month, when South Korea celebrated Liberation Day, a holiday marking the end of Japan's occupation of the Korean Peninsula, President Moon Jae-in said his country was ready to talk with Japan. "Our government is ready to sit down with the Japanese government anytime, keeping the door open widely for negotiation."

In South Korea, it is widely believed that Abe leveraged anti-Korea sentiment of among certain portions of the public to his political advantage. One ruling party official sees Tokyo's tightened controls on tech-related exports as retaliation against a spate of South Korean court rulings that allow assets of Japanese companies to be seized and used to compensate Koreans who had to work for the Japanese during World War II.

He expects that "the change of the Japanese leadership could soften the hard-line stance" by the Abe administration.

However, the Moon administration has respected the judicial decisions over the wartime labor issue, the source of the conflict between two nations.

South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper wrote that a dramatic improvement in relations would be difficult and reported a presidential official saying, "The view on historical issues will not change even with post-Abe administration."

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