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Japan's Abe travels the globe to 'outcharm' China

TOKYO/SAO PAULO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has compiled an impressive travel log. Since he returned to power in December 2012, he has visited 47 countries. What does he hope to achieve through his diplomatic efforts?

      Abe says he aims to take a holistic view of the globe to build alliances with other countries in the areas of security and economy. In doing so, he is championing values such as freedom and democracy in an apparent attempt to prevent a further rise of China, which is run by an autocratic government.

      "My trip to Latin America should mark the beginning of a new strategic partnership. I believe a new chapter has begun for the history of Japan and Latin America," Abe told an Aug. 2 press conference in Sao Paulo while on the final leg of his trip, which began July 25. The itinerary covered Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, Chile, and Brazil. Abe and the leaders of these countries discussed economic cooperation, natural resources development and the reform of the United Nations Security Council.

     In September, Abe is scheduled to visit Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

     "I have been traveling abroad at least once a month so I sometimes get quite exhausted," Abe said in a speech July 19. "But I consider my foreign travel important because I have been trying to address various issues from a wide global perspective."

     Traditionally, Japanese prime ministers tour Europe, the U.S. and Asia. But Abe's itineraries have also included nations in the Middle East and Oceania.

     He says he values both bilateral relations involving one particular partner and multilateral ties that bring several nations together. With regard to his diplomatic initiative in Asia, the prime minister has said that besides East Asia, his targets include the Russian Far East, India and Turkey.

     What, then, are the ideas that form the backbone of his diplomacy? That question was raised on April 8 when Abe met with Larry Ellison, CEO of U.S. software giant Oracle.

Three pillars

Ellison had come to Japan to attend a "summit" of business leaders convened April 8 by the Japan Association of New Economy, a grouping of technology companies headed by major online shopping mall operator Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani. When accompanied to the prime minister's office by Mikitani, the Oracle chief expressed interest in both Abenomics and the Abe's diplomatic agenda.

     Abe told Ellison that there were three pillars supporting his diplomatic program and expounded on them.

     "First, I want to secure peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and the rest of the world through Japan's alliance with the U.S. Secondly, I want to further the economic integration of the region through initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (aimed at flattening trade barriers). Thirdly, I want to promote universal values including liberty, democracy and the rule of law," Abe said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and his wife, Akie, wave to well-wishers upon his departure to Latin America from Haneda airport on July 25.

     A high-ranking official of the Abe government noted that security, economy and universal values constitute the core of Abe's diplomacy because Japan can constrain China by pressing these issues.

     "China's military spending quadrupled in 10 years, surging fortyfold over 20 years or so," Abe reportedly told visiting U.S. President Barack Obama at a sushi bar in Ginza, Tokyo, on April 23. "China is attempting to alter the power balance in the South China Sea through use of force, so we should issue a message stressing our will to seriously engage with Asia." Obama nodded in response.

     Abe and Obama reportedly do not enjoy good chemistry. Still, Abe told his aides that he likes the U.S. president's businesslike manner. Abe also used business-style rhetoric to secure a U.S. pledge to defend Japan's Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls Diaoyu, in the East China Sea.

     Shortly before, in an April 21 meeting in Tokyo with two Republican congressmen -- then-U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan -- Abe said, "The Chinese Communist Party, which dominates China, relies on two things to perpetuate its one-party rule, namely economic growth and nationalism." It was Abe's way of warning the prominent American politicians about the possible consequences of Chinese leader Xi Jinping's nationalistic agenda to promote his country's rise.

     Nine days later, on April 30, the leader of another major country uttered a word of caution about China's approach. In a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, Abe said that the violent feud in Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian rebels is a problem that needs to be addressed by both Europe and Asia, and that in that context, he would call on China to show respect for the rule of law and freedom of navigation. Merkel expressed concerns about Chinese "nationalism."

     China's military buildup and its polity that differs from the world's major democracies are helping to cement ties between Japan, the U.S. and Europe vis-a-vis Beijing.

What about the neighbors?

It should be noted that Abe's diplomacy is stalled on a crucial level: He has yet to visit Japan's most important neighbors, China and South Korea.

     Abe argues a diplomatic effort can be considered to be a success only after it yields results. In other words, no matter how tortuous the process of diplomacy might be, his responsibility is to deliver results that serve Japan's national interests.

     On April 8, Abe met at his official residence Hu Deping, a son of the late Hu Yaobang, who was general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee. Hu has close relations with Xi since both are so-called princelings, the sons of high-ranking Chinese officials. While Hu insisted to the press that the meeting was "unofficial," he actually got a message from Abe to be conveyed to the Chinese president.

     Abe asked Hu to tell Xi that he considers the Japan-China relationship to be one of the world's most important, and that since there are outstanding problems between the two countries, that is all the more reason to hold a dialogue. Abe added that Japan hopes to engage in future-oriented cooperation with China in all areas from a broad perspective and return to the days when the two nations sought to forge "strategic and mutually beneficial" relations.

     Hu agreed to inform Xi.

     The phrase "strategic and mutually beneficial relations" was coined in October 2006, when Abe made China his first overseas destination after being elected prime minister for the first time. Abe wanted to restore Japan-China relations, which were seriously strained by his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors fallen soldiers including convicted war criminals. Then-Chinese President Hu Jintao and Abe were willing to downplay thorny history issues and talk.

      Now, however, Xi considers Japan's war crimes committed in China as an overriding issue and says he will meet with Abe only under certain conditions. The Japanese prime minister yearns for the days when Hu held direct talks with him.

      China, on the other hand, is still rattled by Tokyo's move in 2012 to control the Senkaku Islands and Abe's visit to Yasukuni late last year. If the two leaders are to talk, Beijing insists that Japan acknowledge the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute and then agree to shelve it. In addition, China demands that Abe refrain from visiting the war-related shrine.

     On both issues, however, Abe is adamant. He said: "If I agreed not to go to Yasukuni Shrine, that would mean allowing another country to meddle in Japan's own affairs. Barring me from praying to the spirits of the dead, who sacrificed themselves for their own country, should not be condoned." He also insisted that there is no territorial dispute involving the Senkakus.

     Abe said diplomacy is the art of asserting national interests, so forging friendships with another country is the means for doing so and not an end. He believes that Japan's national interests are to be safeguarded over the medium and long term and if that causes its ties with other countries to temporarily suffer, there is nothing that can be done about it. Abe's firm convictions regarding Japan's wartime past and territorial issues militate against the adoption of realistic diplomatic policy measures.

     Still, neither Abe nor Xi want their countries to stay at loggerheads as a result of their hard-line policies. In fact, Xi demonstrated his intention to ameliorate bilateral ties when he met with former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in late July in Beijing.

     Abe hopes to talk with Xi when the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit is held in Beijing in November. There, the two leaders might try to find common ground while they remain torn between their own brands of realism and idealism.

Dilemma of "creative diplomacy"

Abe is also eager to pursue independent diplomacy instead of just remaining dependent on Japan's key ally, the U.S. This is reminiscent of the idea of "creative diplomacy" promoted by his late father, Shintaro Abe, who served as foreign minister. Abe Jr. wants to improve ties especially with North Korea and Russia, moves that could be frowned upon by the U.S.

     Even when North Korea fired two missiles into the Sea of Japan on July 13, Abe sounded dismissive and denied any impact on the planned talks with Pyongyang. He considers saving Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s as one of his primary goals. Abe is also hopeful that popular support for his government will increase if the second round of investigation pledged by Pyongyang does help find the abductees.

     But Washington is concerned about the rapprochement between Tokyo and Pyongyang if it means that the nuclear weapons and missile program of North Korea takes a back seat on Japan's policy agenda. Japan-U.S. relations could suffer if Abe makes an independent decision to relax economic sanctions on North Korea after kidnap victims are found.

     The recent deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations might also become a stumbling block for Abe, who wants to improve ties with Russia so as to win back the Northern Territories, a chain of islands north of Hokkaido, that are occupied by Russia. But with tensions rising especially after the downing of the Malaysian airliner in Ukraine's rebel-held area, Washington's stance against Moscow has hardened.

     Japan's important diplomatic initiatives floundered in the past in the face of U.S. opposition, pulling the rug from under Japan.

     Abe is now faced with the delicate task of implementing independent diplomatic policy actions while strengthening ties with the U.S.

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