TOKYO - Japan's new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe headed to China in a bid to
ease years of deteriorating ties between Asia's biggest economies, but a crisis
over North Korea cast a shadow over the visit.
Abe is the first Japanese
leader to visit Beijing since 2001. He will head on Monday to South Korea, which
like China refused to invite Abe's predecessor Junichiro Koizumi due to an
emotionally charged row over wartime memories.
Japan's new Prime
Minister Shinzo Abe, pictured 04 October 2006, was due to to visit China
in a bid to ease years of deteriorating ties between Asia's biggest
The trip carries deep symbolism as it will be the first foreign trip for Abe,
who was long seen as a hardliner toward Asian neighbors. Japanese premiers have
traditionally gone first to the United States.
But the visit will be overshadowed by growing concerns over North Korea,
which last week pledged to test its first atom bomb and could carry out its
threat at any time.
"Together with the international community, Japan will send a message to make
North Korea understand that things will get worse if it fails to respond to the
international community's concerns," Abe said ahead of his visit.
Abe, with US backing, has championed a tough stance against the state.
China and South Korea have preferred a more conciliatory approach and warned
against further isolating the country.
Abe, who took office on September 26, is set to hold talks in Beijing with
President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. China is considered to hold the most
leverage of any country over North Korea.
A senior Japanese official, speaking in Beijing ahead of Abe's trip, said it
was "quite natural" that North Korea will figure in Abe's meetings.
"Mr Abe thinks the international community must come together in putting
pressure on North Korea so that North Korea would refrain from implementing a
nuclear test in the future," the official said.
Abe's predecessor Koizumi visited Beijing in October 2001 but China refused
to invite him again due to his repeated visits to a shrine linked to Japan's
Abe has strongly supported trips to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors war
dead and war criminals alike. But he has repeatedly refused to say if he will go
as prime minister.
The Japanese government on Friday denied remarks by a Chinese official that
Abe agreed not to go to the shrine as a condition to visit China.
Abe has come under intense pressure from business leaders to repair ties with
China, which is Japan's largest trading partner.