Japan's Prime Minister Visits China

Japan's new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heads to China for the first formal summit between the two countries in five years. The trip comes at a time of high regional tension, with North Korea threatening to carry out a nuclear test.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

China and Japan are trying to present a united front over North Korea's threat to test a nuclear bomb. The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is in Beijing for the first summit meeting between the two sides in the past five years. Ties between these two Asian giants frayed over its predecessor's visit to a shrine honoring Japan's war dead. But now relations appear to be improving.

NPR's Louisa Lim joins us from Beijing.

Good morning, Louisa.

LOUISA LIM: Good morning.

SEABROOK: The summit meetings have only just ended. What are leaders saying about the nuclear threat from North Korea?

LIM: Well, so far we're hearing that both sides have expressed deep concern over the developments. And both sides have said that they should work hard to push for a resumption of six-party talks, in order to protect the peace and security of the Asian region. So it really appears that they're trying to present a united face.

Before leaving Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the international community must stop North Korea from carrying out nuclear tests, as nuclear tests would only serve to make North Korea more isolated.

Now, in private, behind closed doors, perhaps the Japanese put some pressure on China, as North Korea's old ally, to do more. But so far we haven't yet heard any complaints from Tokyo that China isn't doing enough, and to be honest, they're unlikely to air these complaints in public at a time like this. It seems after five years of being frozen out of leaders summits, the Japanese are just happy to be here.

SEABROOK: Yeah. Are we seeing - does this means something of a rapprochement between China and Japan?

LIM: Well, yes it is. And it - you really have to look at the extraordinary speed at which this leaders meeting happened. I mean, the last Japanese prime minister, Koizumi, had wanted to meet Chinese leaders for the last five years, and they had refused to see him. But less than two weeks after Shinzo Abe took office, he's been welcomed and been given, you know, a formal welcoming ceremony, a banquet at the Great Hall of the People, all the diplomatic pomp and ceremony that you could ask for.

And it's interesting that this also happened on the first day of a very important Communist Party meeting in China, a meeting that happens only once a year. So the fact that the Chinese leadership - the president, Hu Jintao, the premier, Wen Jiabao - were willing to take time out of their party plenum. It shows how desperate really both sides are to try to improve ties.

SEABROOK: But Louisa, Shinzo Abe has also visited the Yasukuni Shrine in the past. Explain why that makes relations chilly between China and Japan.

LIM: Well, China really objects to any visit to the Yasukuni Shrine by a sitting prime minister. That's because inside the shrine, enshrined the ashes of 14 Class A war criminals. So China and many other Asian countries see a visit by a Japanese prime minister as an attempt to glorify Japan's wartime past, and they find this deeply disturbing and repugnant.

And it seems this time Shinzo Abe has made an apology which seems to satisfy China's demand for atonement. He spoke of how Japan had brought about enormous harm and catastrophe to Asian people. And he expressed his deep remorse and said that Japan would never honor war criminals and never glorify militarism. And it seems that that, and the fact that Shinzo Abe is also - he's a new prime minister and China is willing to view him as a clean sheet, a blank piece of paper on which to build a new relationship - that's enough for the Chinese at the moment.

SEABROOK: As of late, each country is eager to expand its reach in Asia. How will regional competition there, though, affect these bilateral relations?

LIM: At the root of it - this is probably the real problem for China and Japan - is they're both vying for regional supremacy in Asia. You know, Japan sees a rising China and it's worrying about its own position in Asia. And the two of them do have very deep issues that they haven't, it appears, they haven't really talked about this time. I mean, there's the issue of history in the history textbooks, Japan's wartime past.

But there were also other disputes. There were disputes about oil and gas exploration in the East China Seas. There were territorial disputes about some islands in the East China Sea. And these are issues that they haven't really talked about at all. At the moment it seems that both sides are just happy to be talking, and they're leaving the difficult issues for later on.

SEABROOK: NPR's Louisa Lim in Beijing.

Thank you so much.

LIM: Thank you.

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