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Japan is poised for a new leader

China, S. Korea summits pushed

Shinzo Abe, the newly named president of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, bowed yesterday at the party’s Tokyo headquarters. Abe is expected to be elected prime minister.
Shinzo Abe, the newly named president of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, bowed yesterday at the party’s Tokyo headquarters. Abe is expected to be elected prime minister. (Kazuhiro Nogi/ Pool via Bloomberg News)

TOKYO -- Japan's likely next premier, outspoken conservative Shinzo Abe, pressed for summits with China and South Korea yesterday after being tapped to head the country's ruling party in a vote heralding a swing to the right.

The overture came as Abe, who is expected to be elected prime minister next week, outlined plans for a government that could usher in a more assertive foreign policy, a stronger military, and a focus on economic reform.

Improving relations with Japan's neighbors will be a key challenge. Outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi enraged Beijing and Seoul by repeatedly visiting a war shrine vilified by critics for glorifying Japan's militaristic past. While the change in leadership could break the ice, Abe falls under suspicion for supporting the Tokyo war shrine, promoting nationalism, and wanting to rewrite the pacifist constitution, a cornerstone of Japan's post-World War II identity.

In a conciliatory note, Abe said he wants to make Japan ``a country that is trusted and loved" by the world. He also said he wants to ``make an effort" to meet Chinese and South Korean counterparts after becoming prime minister.

``It is quite regrettable that the summit meetings between Chinese and Japanese leaders haven't happened," he said. ``It is important for leaders to frankly talk with each other, even though there may be various problems between neighboring countries."

Abe warned, however, ``it is necessary for both sides to make efforts and take a step ahead."

China's Foreign Ministry called on Abe to help improve Sino-Japanese ties.

``We hope the new Japanese Liberal Democratic Party leader is good to his word and works diligently at improving and developing China-Japan relations," China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang was quoted as saying on the ministry's website.

South Korea did not offer an immediate response to Abe's comments.

Abe is on firmer ground concerning relations with the United States. He supports Japan's alliance with Washington, and is expected to hew to Koizumi's pro-US foreign policy. And he has said he intends to increase military and diplomatic cooperation with the United States.

The White House welcomed Abe's election as party leader. ``We have worked closely with Mr. Abe in his capacity as chief Cabinet secretary, and we look forward to working with him in the future to further the Japanese-US alliance," said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

Abe trounced two opponents earlier yesterday to grab the presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, winning 66 percent of the votes of party loyalists.

Attention now turns to next Thursday when the Parliament is expected to anoint Abe prime minister to succeed Koizumi, who has held office since 2001. Abe, who turns 52 today, would be Japan's youngest premier and the first born after World War II.

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