Faced with deteriorating relations with major Asian countries, Japanese new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid "ice-breaking" visits to China and South Korea in October after assuming premiership, signaling a significant shift in Japan's foreign policy toward Asia.
It's undoubtedly a wise decision for Abe to commit himself to breaking Japan's diplomacy deadlock with China and South Korea left by his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi. It not only serves Japan's national interests, but also bears a significant impact on Northeast Asia.
Koizumi, in defiance of strong protests from both at home and abroad, stubbornly made visits for six consecutive years to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 14 Class-A war criminals along with some 2 million Japanese war dead. The repeated shrine visits have seriously undermined the political basis of the Sino-Japanese ties and dragged Japan's political relations with China and South Korea to a chilling point.
Furthermore, Koizumi preferred to forge special alliance with the United States over the ties with its Asian neighbors, saying the more intimate the ties with the United States are, the more easily Japan could build friendly ties with China and South Korea.
Koizumi's unpopular foreign policy led to the suspension of summit meetings with China and South Korea and put Japan's Asian diplomacy in an awkward position.
Opinion polls showed most Japanese voiced their opposition to Koizumi's visits to the war shrine, calling on the new prime minister to make efforts to mend ties with Japan's Asian neighbors.
Makoto Iokibe, president of the National Defense Academy of Japan, said in an article that Koizumi's shrine visits not only led to the worsening of Japan's foreign relations, but also damaged Japan's state "credit," the precious "foreign policy assets."
During their visits to Tokyo in May, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Singaporean Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew also blamed Koizumi's shrine visits, saying the visits had led to the escalating tension in the region.
Assuming premiership in such a grave diplomatic situation, Abe realized that it's urgent to mend ties with Asian neighbors.
At a press conference shortly after his inauguration, the new premier made it clear that Japan, as an Asian country, attached great importance to its Asian diplomacy and was willing to further strengthen relations with neighbors such as China, South Korea and Russia.
Describing China as an important country for Japan, Abe stated that China's peaceful development is conducive to Asia and he would make efforts to further develop the bilateral relations.
In his following speeches on the parliamentary hearings, Abe pointed out it was vital to reopen summit meetings with China and South Korea and to conduct candid dialogue. He also pledged to promote all-round exchanges and cooperation in all fields with China and South Korea, in order to build up future-oriented relations with the two countries on the basis of mutual understanding and trust.
In a manner of wisdom, the new premier took a positive attitude toward historical issues. He acknowledged that Japan's invasion and colonization during World War II inflicted bitter sufferings and heavy damages on the peoples of many countries, especially Asian countries, and reaffirmed Japan's acceptance of the ruling of the Far East Military Tribunal.
In the second week after assuming power, Abe made an official visit to China, making himself the first postwar Japanese prime minister who chose China for the maiden diplomatic tour.
Chinese President Hu Jintao described Abe's visit as "a turning point in the China-Japan relations" and hoped it would also serve as a new starting point for better relations.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also appreciated the visit, saying that a "window of hope" had been opened.
In a joint communique issued during Abe's trip to China, the two governments agreed to continue to abide by the principles of the Sino-Japanese Joint Statement, the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship and the Sino-Japanese Joint Declaration. The two sides also agreed to squarely face history and be oriented to the future.
According to the communique, the two countries would properly deal with problems affecting the development of bilateral ties and promote bilateral relations through expanding both political and economic links.
Both sides agreed to make efforts to build a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests and to realize the goals of peaceful coexistence, long-lasting friendship, mutually beneficial cooperation and common development, the communique said.
Abe's China tour earned him credit at home. Akihiro Ota, president of Japan's junior ruling coalition party the New Komeito, spoke highly of Abe's visit to China, expressing the hope that two countries will further strengthen the mutual understanding.
Mizuho Fukushima, secretary general of the Social Democratic Party, said she hoped Abe's visit to China could become a turning point in bilateral ties.
Abe's gesture was ardently welcomed by the Japanese economic sector, which hope for sound political relations with China -- Japan's largest trade partner, so that Japanese firms can operate under more favorable circumstances.
Kakutaro Kitashiro, chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executive, hoped that the summits between the two countries would be arranged on a regular basis and bilateral economic relationship be further boosted.
Abe's visit to China reinvigorated the development of the Sino-Japanese relationship. To sustain the hard-won amicable atmosphere requires continued efforts from both sides.
Xu Dunxin, who was Chinese ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1998, was "prudently optimistic" about the prospects of China-Japan relations. He said Abe's visit cannot resolve all the problems in bilateral ties as they are complicated and protracted.
But Abe's visit will open a channel for top leaders of the two countries to communicate and exchange views, and lay groundwork for further discussions, Xu said.
In a recent exclusive interview with Xinhua, Abe reiterated his judgment that the Japan-China bilateral ties are of great significance, and preserving and strengthening of friendship between the two countries are vital to peace and development of the region and the world at large.
More potential of the relations is yet to be exploited, Abe said, adding that China's development means opportunities for Japan and he is willing to make efforts to further promote the bilateral ties.