Not known for his diplomatic skills, it’s unclear how Prime Minister Naoto Kan will deal with pressing international issues, even with a major Cabinet reshuffle Friday.
One of the most urgent policy tasks facing the prime minister is shoring up shaky Japan-U.S. relations, which, if unsuccessful, could cost him his job, critics say.
Japan-U.S. relations have hit a snag over the controversial relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, to the Henoko district in Nago in the northern part of the island.
Takashi Kawakami, a professor of security issues at Takushoku University, believes the government has no choice but to shelve the Futenma issue for now to focus on a more comprehensive survey of the Japan-U.S. alliance.
The two governments must, the professor said, improve relations by November, when President Barack Obama is expected to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Yokohama.
“The real main task is to shelve the Futenma issue and further deepen, or return, Japan-U.S. relations to what they were, and create a soft landing for President Obama’s visit to Japan,” Kawakami said, adding that the government meanwhile is also likely to carry on a pro forma dialogue with Okinawa’s residents.
Together with Kan, newly appointed Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and reappointed Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa hold the key to better Japan-U.S. relations.
Maehara, who served as the minister in charge of Okinawan affairs in the previous Cabinet, is an expert on security matters, but as a hawk on China he is also sparking worry about how he will deal with Beijing.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, however, brushed aside such concerns.
“I don’t think Mr. Maehara is fixated on his ideas,” Sengoku told a news conference in the afternoon. “I believe his diplomacy will be extremely pragmatic.”
But the situation was complicated by the recent victory of antibase candidates in a Nago Municipal Assembly election.
The Okinawa gubernatorial election in November will likely be decisive in determining the course of the Futenma relocation.
Because the U.S. recognizes that the will of the Okinawan people can’t be ignored and that it can’t force a base relocation upon them, Washington and Tokyo are likely willing to temporize, Kawakami said.
“It is not about being able or not being able to shelve Futenma to deepen bilateral ties — Japan and U.S. authorities have finally begun to understand that the bilateral alliance is on the line,” Kawakami said. “But if Prime Minister Kan fails, it’s possible that his government could crumble.”
Critics agree that China’s rise is another major issue testing the Japan-U.S. security alliance.
Current Japan-China relations are strained over the arrest of a Chinese ship captain following recent collisions around the disputed Senkaku Islands.
The Senkaku islets, under Japan’s administrative control, are a source of diplomatic disputes with China and Taiwan, with both claiming sovereignty over them.
Motofumi Asai, president of the Hiroshima Peace Institute, points out that at the time of the signing of the revised Japan-U.S. security treaty 50 years ago, the perceived threats were the Soviet Union and communist China. The view held by Japan and the U.S. that China remains a “potential threat” is too narrow, he said.
“China is not what it was in 1960 and we need to take another close look at China,” Asai said. “China has become the No. 2 economy in the world and strongly influences the global economy . . . and it is nonsense to just see China from a militaristic viewpoint. We need to look at it comprehensively including economically, politically, militaristically and culturally.”
For Kan and Maehara, a major diplomatic event is just around the corner — next week’s United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Maehara’s predecessor, Katsuya Okada, had been keen on attending but gave in to Kan’s pleas to help reunite the Democratic Party of Japan, which has been split over the recent presidential race between Kan and DPJ heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa.
A former Foreign Ministry bureaucrat, Asai expressed deep concern over the DPJ’s diplomatic moves, including changing foreign ministers right before an important international event because of internal problems.
“Japanese diplomacy is in a critical state,” Asai said. “Although unintended, Kan has shown that he considers diplomacy less important” than internal disputes.