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Will China, Japan, and South Korea hit the 'reset' button for Asia?

In a historic moment of coincidence, new leaders are taking the helm in China, Japan, and South Korea, providing an unprecedented moment for the region to refresh relations.

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An official hangs a portrait of South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, at the Defense Ministry in Seoul. Ms. Park is the first female president of South Korea.

Park Jong-min/Newsis/Reuters

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As new leaders take office in Japan, China, and South Korea in an unprecedented coincidence of power shifts, a fresh opportunity has arisen to hit the reset button on fractious relationships beset by territorial disputes, nationalism, and history.

It will not be easy, though, to move beyond issues that have roiled Northeast Asia in recent years. It will require the region's new governments to look beyond the territorial disputes that have poisoned Japan's relations with China and complicated its ties with South Korea. And it will need a closer meeting of minds over how to halt renegade North Korea's drive for a nuclear weapon.

But some analysts are optimistic. "This is a critical time," says Sun Zhe, professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "I hope the leaders can have a bigger vision and think about their relationships over the next 20 years. They can work together."

Behind that optimism is cold economic reality: The three Asian giants need each other's trade and investment, and all the incoming governments have made economic prosperity the cornerstone of their policies.

"There is enough economic focus in all three countries" to trump the issues of nationalist pride that divide them," says Torkel Patterson, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Their success or failure will be felt far beyond the region. China, Japan, and South Korea accounted for more than 16 percent of world trade in 2011, according to the International Monetary Fund. In parlous economic times, the world cannot afford to see politics undermine the growth prospects of such a key region.

Where history weighs heavily

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In a part of the world where history weighs heavily – especially Japan's brutal imperialist occupation of its neighbors – all three new leaders have close family ties to the past.

Shinzo Abe, elected prime minister of Japan in December, reveres his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who is both widely regarded as lucky to have avoided prosecution as a war criminal and is also a close friend of Gen. Park Chung-hee, the dictatorial father of modern South Korea. And Park's daughter, Park Geun-hye, was sworn in as South Korea's new president last week, while Xi Jinping, due to take the reins of government in Beijing in early March, is the son of one of Mao Zedong's revolutionary lieutenants.

Whether these ancestral connections will make it easier for the new leaders to clear some of the historical underbrush that has tripped up their predecessors remains to be seen.

"A lot will be determined by how these leaders relate to one another and perceive one another," says John Delury, who teaches history at Yonsei University in Seoul.

A lot will depend on Japan

Key to the new dynamics will be Mr. Abe. He is viewed with mistrust by his neighbors because his vision of a resurgent Japan seems to them to be based on a continued denial of how poorly Japan behaved when it was last a dominant regional power, in the 1930s and '40s.

In the past, Abe has said he did not believe that the Japanese Imperial Army had forcibly recruited sex slaves, or "comfort women," to serve Japanese soldiers, a denial that infuriates South Koreans as well as runs counter to a previous official Japanese admission of guilt.

He has also publicly regretted not visiting Yasukuni, the Tokyo shrine to Japanese war dead that also honors 14 Class A war criminals, when he was last prime minister.

But since retaking office, Abe has been "pragmatic and careful" not to raise such contentious issues, says Hiroshi Meguro, a foreign-affairs analyst at Tokyo's Hosei University. Abe also backed off a campaign pledge to make a big issue out of Tokyo's claim to islands under South Korean control, known here as the Takeshima and in Korea as the Dokdo.

Faced with the more immediate threat of China's claim to a key set of islands , "Abe needs allies, and that is encouraging him to mute anti-South Korean rhetoric," says Robert Dujarric, a regional analyst at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

Washington is clearly anxious to see its two treaty allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, mend their ties, as is the new Japanese government. "Both sides should come to their senses about our priorities" in light of China's rise, says Taro Kono, a veteran member of parliament from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. "And the priority is cooperation."

A lot will depend, says one Western diplomat, on "how strongly Abe feels on the history issues in his heart ... compared with the downside he sees of messing things up with an important partner in the region."

Even if Abe can hold his tongue, the South Korean public is very wary. Ms. Park has said she wants to improve relations with Japan, and as an outspoken advocate of former comfort women she has the credentials to make overtures to Tokyo, Dr. Delury says. But "she will have to step with great caution ... so as not to get ahead of her public," he warns.

Neither will Park want to make friends with Japan at the risk of alienating China, which has become Seoul's top trading partner. The new South Korean leader speaks Chinese and was the previous government's special envoy to Beijing, giving her a natural inclination to work closely with the new Chinese authorities; one of her main goals is to negotiate a free-trade agreement with China.

At the same time, Beijing has deeply disappointed Seoul in recent years by its continued support for North Korea even when Pyongyang directly attacked the South. Beijing did not condemn Pyongyang in 2010 when it sank a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, for example.

Park has made overtures to the North, offering food and fertilizer and advocating a relationship based on trust. But only pressure from Beijing is expected to have any impact on Pyongyang's nuclear program and there are few signs that Seoul will be able to count on such pressure.

Economic fallout?

Japan, meanwhile, locked in a territorial dispute with China over islets in the East China Sea, is suffering the economic fallout. Exports to China, once its biggest market, fell by nearly 7 percent last year, according to Chinese customs figures.

But bilateral trade was still a whopping $330 billion between the world's second- and third-largest economies, tying them in interdependent knots that would be difficult to undo. Abe's caution so far in dealing with the island crisis is driven largely by the fact that "Japan is certainly cognizant of the damage it would suffer if relations with China really go into the tank," the Western diplomat says.

China's larger challenge

China, however, faces a larger challenge in the region, once the current crisis with Japan dies down, warns Professor Sun, and that will be to engender trust and confidence among its neighbors.

He is hopeful that Mr. Xi, who has headed the ruling Communist Party for the past three months, will nurture his early steps to crack down on corruption and curb official showiness into deeper political reforms.

"If Xi can continue this trend, people in other countries will feel there is some hope for Chinese political change and that China will share the same values as they do," he suggests.

That would open the window to regional cooperation on climate and environmental issues, for example. "There will be signs of changing prospects for China to cooperate regionally in the next five or 10 years," Sun predicts. "We need to push China to be more integrated in the international community."

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