New ambassador to China chides bureaucrats, urges FTA

by Masami Ito

The new ambassador to China, Uichiro Niwa, criticized bureaucrats Monday for focusing only on the interests of their ministries and not the nation, and expressed a strong desire to reform the system.

Niwa also urged the government to begin talks on concluding a free-trade agreement with Beijing.

He acknowledged that an FTA with China would face strong opposition from farmers but said Japan needs to strengthen the international competitiveness of its protected agricultural products.

“We’ve been studying the FTA for 10 years now without taking (any action). Isn’t it time (to conclude it)?” he asked.

Niwa, 71, is a former chairman of trading firm Itochu Corp. and the first nongovernmental ambassador to Beijing in the modern era. He is expected to head to Beijing this week.

A civilian without any vested interest in the Foreign Ministry, Niwa expressed disappointment that bureaucrats work to protect the interests of their ministries more than those of the country.

“I am very disappointed, and as an ambassador from the private sector I am going to have a word with the prime minister,” Niwa said. “As ambassador, I want to make some sort of contribution to conduct internal reform. My resolution as ambassador is based on one thing — (devoting myself) to the nation, and if there is any error, I will step down immediately.”

Naming an ambassador from outside the bureaucracy is rare for the Foreign Ministry and considered indicative of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s political leadership and desire to depend less on bureaucrats for policymaking.

But at the same time, concerns have been raised that Niwa’s ties to Itochu could affect Japan-China relations or the embassy’s ties with other trading houses.

Niwa, however, strongly dismissed such concerns.

“There is absolutely no shadow of a doubt in my mind that China would not try to use one company to shake Japan-China relations,” Niwa said.

But if something like that were to happen, “I would clearly say to China that such action would be against justice and from my values, that kind of thinking would not earn my trust . . . and I declare that my sense of values or philosophy would never waver.”

Niwa also stressed that to build trusting relations with other countries, Kan must stay in office for several years. Every year since 2006 has seen a new prime minister. Yukio Hatoyama stepped down last month after only nine months and was replaced by Kan.

There is already talk in the political battleground of Tokyo’s Nagata-cho district of replacing Kan because of the ruling bloc’s loss of its majority in the Upper House in the July 11 election.

“Who would trust the words of a prime minister whose country’s leadership keeps changing after four or five months? (Such a leader would be) a lame duck,” Niwa said.