Domestic woes to hogtie Aso on diplomacy

by Janice Tang

Kyodo News

Like his predecessor, new Prime Minister Taro Aso has inherited a ruling party whose hands are tied by domestic woes and a divided Diet paralyzed by political deadlock.

The government’s key diplomatic tasks also remain unchanged: to win the opposition’s support for extending the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean, seek a breakthrough in talks with North Korea, and boost ties with China and South Korea.

But this time, the prospects for progress are even dimmer, political analysts said.

Many foreign governments are now taking a wait-and-see attitude amid disappointment over the back-to-back resignations of two prime ministers in the span of a year (Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda), and uncertainty over the Liberal Democratic Party’s fate in a general election widely expected to be called within weeks, some experts said.

“Mr. Aso has been watching foreign policy ever since he was a child. He is one who understands diplomacy in his bones, so I think there is nothing to worry about,” former Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said Wednesday after the Fukuda Cabinet resigned en masse.

He was referring to Aso’s upbringing as the grandson of former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who in 1951 signed Japan’s postwar peace treaty and security pact with the United States.

Just a day after taking office, Aso made his foreign debut as prime minister by addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York and pledging to continue Japan’s commitment to support global efforts against terrorism, including the U.S.-led operations in the Indian Ocean, and to pursue the denuclearization of North Korea.

However, some Foreign Ministry officials and diplomatic representatives in Tokyo, while sharing the view that Aso’s experience as foreign minister from 2005 to 2007 ensured he had a good grasp of foreign affairs and close connections with foreign leaders, expressed concern that pressing domestic issues would dominate the agenda.

“I believe Mr. Aso is enthusiastic about foreign policy, given his experience and involvement as foreign minister in the past,” a Middle Eastern diplomat in Tokyo said. “But unfortunately, he is obviously preoccupied with the domestic situation and thus won’t be able to pay much attention to anything else.”

The diplomat added that he expects the situation to continue for quite some time due to the divided Diet, and indicated that Japan’s diplomacy may be affected because foreign governments are likely to refrain from making any substantial negotiations or agreements with Japan until the general election is held.

In his first news conference as prime minister on Wednesday, Aso’s only reference to foreign policy was to say that he wants the foreign minister to tackle the North Korean abduction and nuclear issues, Japan’s alliance with the United States, and Japan’s contribution to the global fight against terrorism.

On North Korea, new Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone said Japan will “make efforts” to press North Korea to start reinvestigations into the abduction cases as promised, while affirming that Japan will uphold its earlier decision to partially lift sanctions when the reinvestigations are launched.

“The references to North Korea in the prime minister’s speech at the United Nations were a message (to Pyongyang),” a top Foreign Ministry official said Friday evening. “It now depends on how North Korea responds to it.”

Yet, Pyongyang’s moves toward reactivating a key nuclear facility in defiance of a six-party agreement on denuclearization because the U.S. delayed its removal from its list of terrorism sponsors, it will be difficult for Japan to break the deadlock since the talks also involve China, South Korea and Russia.

The Aso administration also plans to submit a bill to the Diet next week to extend Japan’s maritime refueling support for U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan.

But with the opposition holding a majority in the House of Councilors and a general election looming, the extension is in doubt, and failure may dent relations with the United States, pundits said.

As for China and South Korea, Japan’s ties with those countries have improved significantly over the past two years, but tensions are still simmering. Japan is mired in an island dispute with Seoul, a demarcation issue in the East China Sea with Beijing, and food-safety issues concerning Chinese-made products.

The two neighbors will also be keeping a close watch on whether the hawkish prime minister will make a controversial visit to war-related Yasukuni Shrine and commit more gaffes that stir public outrage and damage relations.

Aso is prone to blunders. In 2003 he claimed that Koreans voluntarily adopted Japanese names during Japan’s brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula in the early 1900s leading to World War II. But the fact is that the Koreans were forced to give up their names and their language by decree.

“I think he will be very careful with his words and actions as prime minister,” a senior Foreign Ministry official in charge of Asian affairs said.

Aso successfully kicked off his administration’s diplomatic campaign with the U.N. address and bilateral meetings on the sidelines, including ones by Nakasone with his U.S., Chinese, British and other counterparts.

But the attention will be short-lived as a mountain of internal issues awaits Aso upon his return to Japan on Saturday, ranging from securing parliamentary passage of a supplementary budget and restoring the flagging economy to easing public frustration over pension, food safety and other social welfare problems.

Aso’s policy address to the Diet Monday will likely reflect such domestic emphasis.

A senior Foreign Ministry official involved in the drafting process said, “The part allocated for diplomacy will be extremely short — significantly shorter than in past years — because the nation’s attention is focused elsewhere.”