x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

China, Japan and South Korea leadership changes offer fresh start for East Asia

Near-simultaneous leadership changes in China, Japan and South Korea offer East Asia a fresh start after a period of tension, despite the hawkish pedigree of those coming to power.

TOKYO // Near-simultaneous leadership changes in China, Japan and South Korea offer East Asia a fresh start after a period of tension, say analysts, despite the hawkish pedigree of those coming to power.

After elections in Tokyo and Seoul this week and with Beijing's leadership tussles resolved by last month's Communist Party conference, the region's three biggest economies could be over a hump.

All three new leaders have less incentive to play to their galleries freeing them to be more pragmatic in their dealings abroad, said Zhou Weihong, a Japan specialist at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

"Relations should generally turn better," he said. "[It is likely there] will be more room for cooperation between China, Japan and South Korea."

All three leaders face problems from the stumbling world economy and the successful launch of a North Korean rocket last week only added to regional uncertainty.

Japan's presumptive prime minister, Shinzo Abe, spent much of his campaign talking tough on China and proclaimed after his victory there could be "no negotiation" over the sovereignty of islands that both sides claim. The spat blistered in September when Tokyo nationalised the chain.

China sent government boats into the archipelago's territorial waters almost every day until Sunday's polls, and upped the ante last week with a fly-past, in what Japan said was the first Chinese breach of its airspace since at least 1958.

But Tokyo's coastguard has not reported any Chinese ships in immediate waters since the vote.

Tokyo's relations with Seoul had been on the up; they had a currency swap in place; enjoyed cultural exchanges; and had come close to signing an intelligence-sharing deal.

But things fell apart after Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean president, opened old wounds over disputed islands. Accusations followed that Tokyo was not sorry enough for its wartime behaviour and demands to compensate women forced into sexual slavery.

The election on Wednesday of the conservative Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the former military ruler, Park Chung-hee, marked an opportunity to get ties back on track, said the Korea University professor Lee Nae-young.

He said Ms Park's father worked with Mr Abe's grandfather, the former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was arrested, though never charged, for war crimes, to normalise bilateral diplomatic relations in 1965.

"Like her father, who had strengthened ties with the US and Japan, president-elect Park Geun-hye is expected to seek better relations with the two allies," Prof Lee said.