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The East Asian Triangle

Once again, North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is threatening Asia’s stability. Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, hastily arranged a summit in China with President Hu Jintao on the eve of North Korea’s nuclear test, a meeting that saw both men agree that such a move was “intolerable.”

The meeting is a welcome development. But Abe comes into office with a reputation as a stronger nationalist than his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, whose insistence on visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine (where Class A war criminals from World War II are buried) helped sour relations with China. For stability to be preserved, Sino-Japanese relations must improve.

Although North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are worrying and destabilizing, China’s rise is the key strategic issue in East Asia. For three decades, its economy has grown by 8% to 10% annually. Its defense expenditures have an even faster pace. Yet Chinese leaders speak of China’s “peaceful rise” and “peaceful development.”

Some believe that China cannot rise peacefully, and will seek hegemony in East Asia, leading to conflict with the United States and Japan. Others point out that China has engaged in “good neighbor” policies since the 1990’s, settled border disputes, played a greater role in international institutions, and recognized the benefits of using soft power.