2010 was a tough year in foreign relations for Prime Minister Naoto Kan and the Democratic Party of Japan as they scrambled to deal with one problem after another, including territorial disputes with China and Russia.
But according to Hitoshi Tanaka, newly appointed chairman of the Institute for International Strategy, the timing was no coincidence — other countries seized the opportunity to take a jab at Japan’s diplomatically weakening state.
Political leadership has been at the top of the DPJ’s to-do list since it knocked the Liberal Democratic Party off the throne in September 2009. The DPJ had been extremely critical of traditional bureaucracy-oriented policymaking, and when it took power it vowed to reform the system to make sure the politicians were in charge.
Tanaka, a former senior official in the Foreign Ministry, pointed out that career diplomats have the experience and information necessary to lay out foreign policy based on Japan’s national interests, but the DPJ ended up freezing them out.
“There is no denying that Japan’s diplomatic establishment is weakening,” Tanaka said during a recent interview with The Japan Times. “And if they don’t rebuild the system immediately, I think our national interests will be jeopardized.”
Relations with China fell to their lowest point in recent memory over the September confrontation between a Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Japan has administrative control over the islets, but they are claimed by China and Taiwan. The situation deteriorated as Japan arrested and detained the Chinese skipper, and Beijing fought back by suspending ministerial-level and cultural exchanges, and effectively halting exports of rare earth metals to Japan.
And while Kan desperately tried to mend ties with China, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a visit in November to one of the four Russia-held islands off Hokkaido that Japan wants back.
The DPJ was lashed with harsh criticism from the opposition camp as well as the public.
“It is clear that Japan has unguarded areas in foreign policy,” Tanaka said. “And when another country sees the other’s policy wavering, it views it as possibly a big opportunity to achieve its interests.”
Tanaka advised that first the government and bureaucrats should rebuild trust and set up a system of role-sharing so both the politicians and bureaucrats can do their jobs properly, and then establish a central strategic bureau like the U.S. National Security Council.
The former bureaucrat explained that the global situation has been changing rapidly and foreign policy is no longer just about forming alliances with democratic states.
“Japan, now more than ever, needs a strategic vision,” Tanaka said. “Rising nations are becoming more powerful and we are going to enter a future in which we will be dependent on their economic growth. And to deal with that, Japan will need a very complex diplomatic strategy.”
Tanaka, a former deputy foreign minister, has held various important posts, including director general of the Asian and Oceanian Bureau, before he resigned in 2005.
An expert on North Korea, he is known for engineering the historic Pyongyang summit between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in September 2002.
In October, he became chairman of the new Institute for International Strategy set up in the Japan Research Institute think tank.
He slammed North Korea’s recent artillery attack on a South Korean island as “a barbarous act.” Last month’s shelling by Pyongyang killed four, including two civilians, on Yeonpyeong Island.
Tanaka said North Korea’s belligerence is based not only on its internal instability but also its belief that China won’t turn against it.
Beijing is Pyongyang’s biggest ally and has repeatedly offered support for the hermit state. Most recently, China argued against passing a statement strongly criticizing North Korea during an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. The same thing occurred earlier this year when a South Korean warship was sunk. The deadly incident was blamed on a North Korean torpedo.
“North Korea sees a weakening in the current international relations in East Asia and is exploiting it,” Tanaka said. “And its outlook is that China will not abandon North Korea, that China will support it” amid the deteriorating relations between China and other countries, including Japan and the United States.
He expressed concern that if Pyongyang takes further provocative action, Seoul may fight back.
“Whether that could lead to all-out war is another story, but that is how extremely tense the situation is now on the Korean Peninsula,” Tanaka said. “And what would await at the end would be the collapse of North Korea.”
To keep the Korean Peninsula from exploding, the key player will be China, Tanaka said.
With China emerging as a major power, beating out Japan as the second-biggest economy in the world as well as increasing its defense budget by double digits for the past 21 years, its global influence is rapidly increasing. It is up to Japan, the U.S. and South Korea to persuade China to take “constructive” measures, Tanaka said.
“If China doesn’t take (such steps), Japan, the U.S. and South Korea will have to take strong measures, which would make the situation more confrontational rather than find a solution,” Tanaka said. “Nobody wants that to happen, so the equation is for the countries to persuade China to take action.”