Abe elected Japan PM; China calls for better ties
Updated: 2006-09-26 15:26

TOKYO - Shinzo Abe, an advocate of tighter ties with Washington and a bigger say for Japan in world affairs, was elected Japan's prime minister by parliament on Tuesday, becoming at 52 the youngest Japanese leader since World War Two.

Liberal Democratic Party President Shinzo Abe acknowledges applause from lawmakers after being elected as Japan's 90th prime minister in the powerful lower house of Parliament in Tokyo Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2006. Nationalist Abe, a proponent of a tight alliance with the United States and a more assertive military, won election as Japan's new prime minister Tuesday, scoring comfortable majorities in both houses. [AP]

The hawkish Abe, a relative novice by Japanese political standards, faces the challenges of repairing ties with China -- frayed by predecessor Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni war shrine -- and keeping economic reforms on track while addressing voter concerns about widening social gaps.

In Beijing, China on Tuesday urged Abe to help improve bilateral ties. "We hope that the new leadership of Japan can endeavour for the improvement and development of Sino-Japanese relations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at a regular press briefing.

Qin said China hopes Japan can "contribute to the development" of bilateral ties.
"The Chinese government attaches great importance to ties with Japan," Qin said. "At present, there are obstacles to bilateral ties. The reasons are quite clear and the Japanese government is aware of them."

Abe, elected president of the governing Liberal Democratic Party last week by a two-thirds majority, bowed to applause after being chosen prime minister by parliament's powerful lower house.

He will announce his cabinet later in the day.

A soft-spoken, popular lawmaker whose grandfather was also prime minister, Abe has pledged to rewrite Japan's pacifist constitution, boost Tokyo's role in global affairs, and revive respect for traditional values and pride in Japan's past.

He has also promised to nurture growth while pushing ahead with the economic reforms begun by Koizumi, and give precedence to spending cuts before tax rises in the struggle to rein in Japan's huge public debt, the biggest among advanced countries.

Koizumi -- one of Japan's most colourful and popular leaders -- smiled and waved after receiving a bouquet of flowers and applause in a ceremony at the prime minister's office, as the curtain fell on his sometimes tumultuous but rarely boring reign.

Koizumi, a media-savvy maverick known for snappy sound bites and cameo appearances with celebrities, stamped his mark on Japan's political scene after taking power in April 2001 with promises to pry his party loose from the grip of vested interests and lift government's heavy hand from the stalled economy.


Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party -- which suffered a bashing in a September 2005 general election -- got 115 votes to Abe's 339 of the 476 votes cast in the 480 seat lower chamber.

Ozawa, 64, who suffers from heart problems, was hospitalised on Monday for health checks but attended the lower house session.

In an early leak of the new line-up, Kyodo news agency said Abe would tap Senior Vice Foreign Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki, 55, a Harvard-educated former central banker, as chief cabinet secretary -- the premier's right-hand man and top government spokesman. Abe himself had held the post since last October.

Among other names floated for key posts in Abe's cabinet are Foreign Minister Taro Aso, 66, the outspoken runner-up in the LDP presidential race, who shares many of Abe's policy views.

A staunch defender of Japan's males-only imperial succession tradition, Aso has offended China and South Korea with remarks about Japan's colonial and wartime record in Asia.

More recently, Aso has met senior Chinese diplomats for talks on repairing ties, including a possible resumption of leaders' summits not held since April 2005 because of Koizumi's pilgrimages to Yasukuni, where Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are revered with war dead.

Media have also tipped former financial services minister Hakuo Yanagisawa for an important job.

Once a darling of foreign investors, Yanagisawa, 71, came to be seen as an obstacle to reform and was replaced in September 2002 with Heizo Takenaka, a former academic who emerged as the architect of many of Koizumi's economic reforms.

On Tuesday, Abe tapped pro-growth party heavyweight Hidenao Nakagawa, 62, for the post of LDP secretary general, the party's No. 2 post and de facto campaign manager, especially important as the LDP prepares for an upper house election next summer.

Abe, who won a cabinet post as chief cabinet secretary for the first time just a year ago, also chose veterans for other key party positions, including Shoichi Nakagawa as its policy chief.

Shoichi Nakagawa, unrelated to Hidenao, has held the agriculture and trade minister portfolios.

He is known for his tough stance against China and North Korea and shares Abe's views on the desirability of putting patriotism back into school curriculums, a controversial proposal that critics say has echoes of wartime militaristic teaching.