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Friday, 30 December 2011

Japan's PM heads to China amid North Korea worries

Beijing - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda arrived in Beijing Sunday on his first official visit to China focused on regional security following the death of North Korean strongman Kim Jong-Il.


Ties between the two regional powers have been dogged by economic and territorial disputes. Japan has repeatedly expressed concern over China's widening naval reach in the Pacific and what it calls the "opaqueness" of Beijing's military budget.


But Kim's death has shifted the agenda to worries about nuclear-armed North Korea, where Kim's untested son Kim Jong-Un appears to be taking the reins of power in the isolated communist state.


It has created a "new situation" in East Asia, Noda said as he met with Wen Jiabao, the prime minister of China, a country he said wields the "most influence" over Pyongyang.


"On this issue it is very timely to exchange views with the host of the six-party (nuclear disarmament) talks and the country with the most influence on North Korea," Noda said.


Analysts agree that China holds the key to handling North Korea, where Japan has few ties overall and fewer still to Kim's untested son.


Japan, having no ties with the North, can do little other than to support China's engagement with Pyongyang, said Takehiko Yamamoto, professor at Waseda University.


"You might call it an achievement if Japan and China only confirm their joint resolve to work together to protect peace and stability in northeast Asia including on the Korean peninsula," he added.


Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi this week held telephone talks with his counterparts in the United States, South Korea, Russia and Japan as Beijing seeks to ensure regional stability.


Efforts to revive six-party negotiations on scrapping the North's nuclear programme are also likely to be on the agenda after Seoul's chief nuclear delegate visited China Thursday and Friday for meetings with his counterpart.


The six-party talks, chaired by China and also involving the two Koreas, the United States, Russia and Japan, have been at a standstill since December 2008.


Negotiations to resurrect them appeared to be making progress before Kim's death last Saturday. Media reports said Pyongyang would agree to suspend its uranium enrichment programme in return for food aid from Washington.


In his comments, Noda also stated that "safeguarding the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula is in the common interest" of China and Japan.


"We also hope to have a frank exchange of views on how to overcome the kidnapping issue, nuclear issue and missile issue," Noda stated.


Japan has previously expressed outrage over North Korea's abduction of its nationals, and has viewed with concern Pyongyang's test-firing of its short-range missiles on the same day it announced Kim's death.


Noda's overnight visit was set for December 12 and 13, but rescheduled to Sunday and Monday at China's request, apparently for domestic reasons.


Some suggested the date change was tied to the anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, in which Japanese troops killed tens of thousands of Chinese civilians during 1937-38


The two countries are also expected to discuss issues including territorial disputes in the East China Sea.


Japan will urge China towards a framework dialogue to set rules for the development of gas fields in the East China Sea, near disputed islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.


The two are still trying to heal diplomatic wounds from a year ago when China reacted in fury over the arrest of one of its fishermen near the islands after he rammed his ship into Japanese coastguard vessels.


Noda is also expected to thank China for its assistance in the aftermath of Japan's March earthquake and tsunami, and to ask that Beijing send a pair of pandas to the hard-hit city of Sendai to boost morale.

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