Pundits came away unimpressed over the weekend by Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s bilateral meetings with his Chinese and Russian counterparts and his hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Yokohama.
Although Kan sought to defuse tensions with Beijing and Moscow, critics say his administration needs to take a more proactive approach on diplomacy instead of dealing with issues as they happen.
“Diplomatic deterrence is important,” said Kenichi Ito, president of the Japan Forum on International Relations, a nonprofit think tank.
Japan “needs to deter other countries from behaving badly, but I don’t think Kan or (Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito) Sengoku understand that.”
Ito, a former Foreign Ministry official, said the government must take “retaliatory measures” against Russia, while joining hands with the United States, South Korea and its Southeast Asian neighbors in dealing with China.
“China is beginning to take the road to hegemonism and Japan cannot deal with that alone,” Ito said. “And the Yokohama APEC was the perfect opportunity to diplomatically maneuver (the situation), but Japan couldn’t take advantage of that because all it did was kowtow to China.”
Sino-Japanese relations have deteriorated heavily since a September run-in involving a Chinese trawler and two Japan Coast Guard cutters that were trying to shoo the vessel away from the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The uninhabited islets are under Japan’s control but claimed by China, which calls them the Daioyu.
Japan took a strong position by arresting the Chinese skipper but released him after Beijing retaliated by suspending high-level and cultural exchanges and effectively halting exports of rare earth metals to Japan.
Kan was desperate to hold a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Saturday-Sunday APEC summit. In the end, they met for a mere 22 minutes, including interpretation.
Kan told Hu that the islets are “an inherent part of the territory of Japan.” The two leaders also agreed to move forward with their the “strategic, mutually beneficial relationship,” Kan told reporters after the meeting.
After Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashiri Island, one of the four Russia-held islands off Hokkaido that Japan wants returned, the only thing Tokyo did was recall its ambassador to Moscow for four days. And that without proclaiming the move was part of an official protest.
Kan did lodge a “protest” when he met Medvedev on Saturday, Japanese officials said. But the words went no further.
“Kan’s goal ended up being just to meet, but in diplomacy, what matters is what you can win in the talks,” Ito said. “You need to have a strategy for that and it is pointless if the meeting had no substance.”
Kan also apparently lacked the will, as host of the APEC summit, to achieve substantial progress toward the goal of forging the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific.
The key topic appeared to be the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a framework that was listed as one of the foundations that could lead to FTAAP.
Pressured by the highly protected agriculture industry and ruling bloc and opposition lawmakers who rely on the farm vote, the government wasn’t even able to commit to joining the TPP negotiations.
“In the end, Japan couldn’t show any leadership internally nor externally,” Ito said.
A recent Kyodo News survey showed the support rate for the Kan Cabinet has plummeted almost 15 points since early October to 32.7 percent. And 74 percent of the respondents said they were dissatisfied with foreign policy.
Jitsuo Tsuchiyama, vice president of Aoyama Gakuin University, said neither the APEC results nor the bilateral meetings will boost public support for Kan’s crew.
“I don’t think the government’s support rate is going to go up,” Tsuchiyama said. “The bilateral meetings ended up being something just (for Kan) to save face.”
While Japan-U.S. relations showed relative improvement amid Tokyo’s strained ties with China and Russia, there still remains the contentious issue of relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa.
But Kan only repeated Sunday he would make efforts to resolve the issue after the prefecture’s Nov. 28 gubernatorial election.
“I don’t think Japan-U.S. relations will be completely back on track until the Futenma issue is resolved,” Tsuchiyama said.
“And if Kan thinks the Futenma base is necessary, he needs to explain this convincingly to the Okinawans — not wait for the results of the election.”
Critics have pointed out that foreign policy under the ruling Democratic Party of Japan has been unstable — the DPJ reached out to China last year but then came rushing back to the U.S. after ties between Tokyo and Beijing soured.
Tsuchiyama said that ever since the DPJ took over the government last year, the direction of diplomacy has become unclear.
“Kan needs to think about what he wants to do in regards to diplomacy and security based on Japan’s physical, political, economic and diplomatic strengths,” Tsuchiyama said. “He needs to build a basic foreign policy strategy.”
It takes time
More time will be required to improve relations with China, because the two countries need to be sensitive to domestic public opinion, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said Monday.
“Japan-China ties are extremely important. So we will aim to repair and improve them,” Sengoku said at a news conference. “But both sides have positions and domestic affairs.
“It will not work if we proceed too quickly,” Sengoku said of fence-mending efforts amid strained ties triggered by the run-in between a Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard cutters near the Senkaku Islands. “Even if it requires a bit more time, we will go step by step in a positive direction.”