JAPAN! My favorite salmon-colored newspaper, the Financial Times, has a special report on Japan that focuses on ways that new premier Shinzo Abe is different from his more Gere-like predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. Although Koizumi had more charisma and a fondness for playing dress-up, Abe appears to be much brighter when it comes to foreign policy:

Mr Abe's first move was to pull a surprise "Nixon goes to China" visit to Beijing to meet President Hu Jintao. Mr Hu had said he would not meet Mr Koizumi until he promised not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japan's war dead, that includes 14 Class A war criminals from the second world war. Mr Koizumi visited the shrine anyway and passed on the summit with Mr Hu. Recognising the futility of his own approach and worried about the danger of anti-Japanese protests turning against the Chinese government, Mr Hu wisely chose not to demand the same condition of Mr. Abe. Mr. Abe, in turn, wisely chose not to promise that he would go to the shrine as Mr Koizumi had. With ambiguity re-established, Mr. Abe was able to meet Mr. Hu and reorient the Sino-Japanese dialogue towards more important challenges, such as cooperating to roll back North Korea's nuclear weapons programmes.

My hope is that Abe's panda-hugging will make it easier for the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program to succeed, with the U.S., China, South Korea and Japan keeping a united front. China's surprising willingness to play hardball with North Korea's September petroleum shipments were what ultimately brought North Korea back to the table. Of course, going forward a key factor is how the Bush administration will negotiate. Will it show flexibility and wisdom?

--Blake Hounshell

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