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New Japanese PM to Visit China, South Korea

Less than two weeks after becoming Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe appears set to make his first overseas visits to hold critical summits with the leaders of China and South Korea.

Japanese media on Tuesday reported that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is to make his first official trip within days - holding talks Sunday in Beijing with Chinese President Hu Jintao and meeting South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun the following day in Seoul.

Japanese government sources say an official announcement on the visits is likely to be made Wednesday.

There has been no official confirmation of Mr. Abe's trip from either China or South Korea.

Japanese officials say planning for the visits began even before Mr. Abe succeeded Junichiro Koizumi last month.

Relations between Japan and the two Asian neighbors were chilly during the five years of the Koizumi administration.

The trip to Beijing is viewed here as highly significant. Foreign Ministry spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi says a breakthrough came last week in Tokyo when the Japanese vice foreign minister held talks with his Chinese counterpart.

"I think that was the meeting which was very much important for both China and Japan to have this top-level meeting as soon as possible," he said. "It's really hard for me to say which side initiated this. It materialized almost simultaneously from both nations' initiatives."

The anticipated meeting between Prime Minister Abe and President Hu will be the first between leaders of the two countries since April 2005, when Mr. Hu met Mr. Koizumi in Jakarta. Neither China nor Japan has hosted such a summit since Mr. Koizumi went to Beijing in October 2001.

The Japanese and South Korean leaders last met 11 months ago on the sidelines of a regional leaders' meeting in Busan, South Korea.

Both Beijing and Seoul repeatedly objected to the annual visits by Mr. Koizumi to a Tokyo war shrine, viewed as a symbol of Japanese militarism. Much of China and the entire Korean peninsula suffered in the early 20th century under brutal Japanese colonial rule.

Mr. Abe has refused to say whether he will make an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine as prime minister. Political analysts say he is not expected to make a pilgrimage during the rest of this year in order to jump-start diplomacy with Japan's neighbors.

Like his predecessor, Mr. Abe is viewed as a hawk on defense issues and a nationalist. In his first policy speech last week, Mr. Abe said he hoped to revise Japan's pacifist constitution and to see schools promote greater patriotism.

Those remarks have made some at home and abroad uneasy because they fear a resurgence of Japanese militarism.

But Mr. Abe also spoke of the importance of improving relations with China and South Korea and building mutual trust with all Japan's neighbors.