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     Jan 9, 2007
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Japanese PM sets out on a new-year mission
By Hisane Masaki

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was to set out on a new-year journey to Britain, Germany, Belgium and France on Tuesday to drum up international support for his country's hardline stance on North Korea and bid for a long-coveted permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, among other issues.

In Brussels, Abe will hold talks with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. He will also visit the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for

talks with secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, becoming the first Japanese premier to visit the headquarters of what was originally established in 1949 as an anti-Soviet alliance.

The pilgrimage to NATO headquarters will give Abe an opportunity to pitch a greater international-security role for Japan, despite the constraints of the nation's 60-year-old post-World War II pacifist constitution, a document he has vowed to revise.

In addition to North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and past abduction of Japanese citizens, and Japan's bid for a permanent Security Council seat, international tensions over Iran's nuclear-development program will also be high on the agenda. The Security Council adopted a resolution last month barring all countries from selling materials and technology to Iran that could contribute to its nuclear program.

Before flying back to Tokyo next Monday, Abe will stop in the Philippines for the second East Asia Summit in Cebu, which was postponed early last month, purportedly because of an approaching typhoon. On the fringes of the summit, Abe is also expected to hold talks with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

Abe has a reputation as a headliner on Pyongyang, especially over the issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies. This earned him a high degree of popularity in Japan, enabling him to take the helm of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and government last September. Many in Japan have found Pyongyang's actions unforgivable, lighting a nationalist fuse here.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Taro Aso is also to make a week-long visit to Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia from Tuesday, and North Korea will be one of the main topics of discussion with leaders there. The simultaneous visits to Europe by Abe and Aso are apparently aimed at demonstrating to the world that Japan attaches importance to its relations with European countries, as well as those with Asia and the United States, which Abe may visit this year.

Some pundits say Abe's upcoming European tour reflects an "omnidirectional diplomacy" he pursues. Others say that although the premier, just like his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, is a staunch advocate of a closer alliance with the US, the former may be distancing himself from the diplomatic stance of the latter, who critics say was wholly devoted to strengthening ties with the US, even at the expense of ties with other countries, especially in Asia.

North Korea and Security Council bid
Alarmed by North Korea's nuclear and missile tests last year, Japan has revved up efforts to deploy a missile-defense system in cooperation with the US. The Abe government approved late last month a budget plan for the next fiscal year starting in April that calls for a sharp rise in spending on the missile-defense system to 182.6 billion yen (US$1.54 billion), up 42.7 billion yen, or 30.5%, from the initial budget for the current fiscal year.

Abe said recently, "The security situation surrounding Japan has changed drastically with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missiles as well as a series of regional conflicts. To protect Japan's peace, independence and democracy and the lives of the Japanese, we need to further strengthen the Japan-US alliance." Abe reiterated his pledge to revise the US-drafted postwar constitution, which imposes severe restrictions on Japan's military activities abroad, while in office.

Within days after North Korea's nuclear test on October 9, the Abe government responded by imposing its own sanctions on the Stalinist state and actively pushed with the US for the Security Council to pass a resolution punishing Pyongyang with trade and other sanctions.

Japan was able to take the initiative because it held a non-permanent seat on the council. But the nation's two-year term expired at the end of last month. During his upcoming European tour, Abe will seek support among those nations with seats at the council for Japan's position on the issues of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and its past abduction of Japanese nationals so that it can be reflected in council's future decisions.

This would obviously include Britain and France, which are permanent members, but also with Belgium, which is joining the Security Council temporarily this year. Germany is also important, since it has just taken over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union. Germany will also hold the rotating one-year presidency of the Group of Eight major nations through the end of 2007.

"It is extremely meaningful for Japan to strengthen cooperation with countries such as those in Europe which share common values with Japan," Abe said in a press conference last Thursday, adding that Japan wants to make contributions to solving the issues of poverty, regional conflicts and the environment. "I hope that Japan will gain trust through international cooperation. I think that would lead to Japan's becoming a permanent member of the [UN Security Council] in the future."

While Abe is courting Western Europe, Foreign Minister Aso will visit Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia as the first step in implementing his "arc of freedom and prosperity" initiative, unveiled in November, to enhance Japan's relations with emerging democracies in Asia and Europe and actively support their democratic and economic development. The four former communist nations in Eastern Europe joined NATO in recent years.

Partnership with NATO
Abe's visit to NATO headquarters will likely open a new era of cooperation between Japan and the 26-nation alliance, which is currently at a turning point. It comes in the wake of NATO's recent decision to beef up cooperation with Japan and other non-member countries.

At their summit in the Latvian capital Riga in late November, NATO leaders approved the Comprehensive Political Guidance Policy. This political document recognizes that the principal 

Continued 1 2 

Japan's eyes still on UN seat (Jan 3, '06)

Challenges ahead for premier (Dec 23, '06)

Japan, US tune up defense policies (Dec 8, '06)


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