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FOCUS: Japan's chilled ties with China may dampen E. Asia community plans.

TOKYO, Dec. 11 Kyodo

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will wrap up his diplomatic schedule for the year with a four-day trip to Kuala Lumpur beginning Sunday to attend regional summits, but experts already predict a gloomy outcome.

By continuing his contentious visits to Tokyo's war-related Yasukuni Shrine, Koizumi has helped take Japan's relations with China to the worst level since the two countries reestablished diplomatic ties in 1972 and is hence dampening prospects for an East Asian community, Asian studies scholars say.

''China and Japan are the most important bilateral relations for the East Asia community,'' Amitav Acharya, professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said in a recent symposium in Tokyo.

''Unless there is a deep reconciliation between Japan and China, there can be no East Asian community, just as...the European Community (could not have happened) without a deep reconciliation between Germany and France,'' he said.

Following Koizumi's latest visit to the Shinto shrine Oct. 17, China has refused talks between Koizumi and its leaders -- President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao -- even on the sidelines of multilateral summits, let alone reciprocal visits that have been suspended for more than four years.

China has also called off a trilateral parley with Japan and South Korea in the Malaysian capital for the first time since such talks began in 1999 on the sidelines of annual summit meetings hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Koizumi is also unable to meet bilaterally with South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun during his trip to Kuala Lumpur.

In addition, preparations for next Wednesday's East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur were also complicated by the rivalry between Japan and China over who should take the lead in building the future regional community.

A Japanese Foreign Ministry official said in a briefing with reporters Friday that he sensed no particular adverse effects the lack of meetings between Japan and its two neighbors could have in preparing for the regional summits.

But academics pointed to dim prospects for the East Asia Summit under the current circumstance in which the three countries' leaders cannot meet due to the dispute over the Japanese leaders' visits to the shrine.

Koizumi has visited Yasukuni Shrine, which honors convicted Japanese war criminals along with the war dead, once a year since taking office in April 2001. Asian countries Japan invaded and occupied before and during World War II view Yasukuni as symbolic of unrepentant Japanese militarism and regard Koizumi's repeated visits to it as insensitive and insulting.

''It simply doesn't make sense to me to talk about an East Asian community when the two most important East Asian powers are bickering and quarrelling,'' Acharya said.

To help break the diplomatic standstill, University of Tokyo professor Akihiko Tanaka proposed that the three countries come to a ''cease-fire'' on the Yasukuni issue, at least until Koizumi leaves office next September.

Tanaka suggested that Koizumi no longer visit Yasukuni as prime minister, and that Beijing and Seoul refrain from mentioning the issue further.

Among other recommendations, Seoul National University research professor Son Ki Sup urged Japan to build a new war memorial that Roh and China's Hu could also visit, and to present a big vision for the regional community rather than engaging in diplomatic power games.

Iwate Prefectural University President Makoto Taniguchi urged Koizumi to go back to the vision he delivered in a policy speech in January 2002 in Singapore, in which he called for creating a regional community by deepening cooperation with China and South Korea as a ''significant force in propelling this community.''

Waseda University professor Kazuko Mori proposed that the three countries launch a joint project of some kind to build mutual confidence in a tangible manner.

''Under the circumstances, the countries cannot help but resort to multilateral mechanisms to help alleviate bilateral problems,'' she said. ''What we can expect is that if Japan, China and South Korea get jointly involved in this community building in East Asia, they might attain a historic reconciliation in the end.''

But the scholars were also pessimistic about a breakthrough in the near future.

''It is very depressing to me to hear the talk...that for Japan, the relationship with the United States comes before the relationship with East Asia,'' Acharya said, referring to comments Koizumi made last month.

During a news conference Nov. 16 after his talks with U.S. President George W. Bush in Kyoto, Koizumi said, ''The better the Japan-U.S. relations, the easier it is to build good ties with China, South Korea and other Asian countries as well as the rest of the world.''

He repeated the comment Nov. 30 in a lecture organized by his governing Liberal Democratic Party, and also refused heeding to Chinese and South Korean protests against his Yasukuni visits, saying the issue cannot be used as a ''diplomatic card.''

In another negative sign, the Japanese government has decided against allocating a budget in fiscal 2006 for a feasibility study to build a secular war memorial, government and ruling coalition sources said Friday.

''The current administration certainly is not one that places emphasis on diplomacy,'' the University of Tokyo's Tanaka said.

''The problem is, no political leader has emerged (in Japan) since the 1990s who is strong both in domestic reform and strategic diplomacy,'' he said.

''So it was an either-or choice in the Sept. 11 (general) election and the people chose the one for domestic reform at the cost of seeing international relations being disregarded,'' he added.

Waseda's Mori predicted that the current diplomatic woes will loom as a more serious issue for Koizumi's successor after he steps down from the premiership next September.
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Publication:Japan Policy & Politics
Date:Dec 12, 2005
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