By Jung Min-ho
Four nations in Northeast Asia - China, Japan, and North and South Korea - all have new leaders. Their leadership pedigree will soon be judged on the basis of their economic performances, said an expert on the region.
"These are very exciting times for the region. Each leader can send a positive signal by focusing on domestic economic growth over thornier disputes at least at first," Timothy S. Rich, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University, said. "Japan is in a unique position. For decades, it was the economic powerhouse in the region. China and even South Korea are now challenging that position, and leaders are slowly adjusting to this new reality."
He pointed out that the inability of Japan's Democratic Party to improve the sluggish economy was what brought conservative Shinzo Abe back into office.
According to Japan's Cabinet Office, Japan's economy contracted at an annual rate of 3.5 percent from July to September, suffering from weakening exports.
China's Xi Jinping is a son of Mao Tse-tung's revolutionary aide and Abe is a grandson of one of Japan's wartime cabinet leaders. Also, Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong-un are both the offspring of respective military strongmen in South and North Koreas.
When asked about the region's tensions, which have been recently highlighted by territorial disputes surrounding Dokdo and Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, Rich said the leaders are likely to act in a restrained manner in the interim.
"Abe (like any leader) does not want to look like they're giving up territory, but I'm doubtful that any leader in the region really wants to exhaust more energy on these disputes," Rich said. "While a lot of attention has been put on how the Abe election and rising nationalism may hurt relations with their neighbors, I'm still not sold on this yet."
Abe is far more interested in economics at the moment than creating new tensions in the region or finding an immediate resolution to territorial questions, he added.
The North Korea factor is also expected to profoundly affect the region's dynamics after the nation proved its missile technology capabilities by putting a satellite in orbit through the Dec. 12 rocket launch.
Comparing South Korea's president-elect to Richard Nixon, Rich said, Park has a "unique" opportunity to restart diplomacy with her counterpart in North Korea.
"Both had strong conservative credentials and thus meeting with communist leaders (Mao in Nixon's case) would not have been perceived as selling out the country or being soft on national interests,"Rich said.
"Nonetheless, Xi will likely engage more with North Korea." He said. He added China's ever increasing role in the region is the key to understanding the new era.
"China is far more willing to project its military and economic power than ever, and other countries need to consider not just their response but what China's goals are."