Kan’s foreign policy plate full, waiting to be attacked

by Masami Ito

The foreign policy agenda of Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his Democratic Party of Japan-led government in 2011 is stacked with pressing bilateral diplomatic issues with the United States and China, as well as broader, strategic goals, including curbing global warming and promoting regional free trade.

While analysts gave Kan low marks for his handling of last year’s diplomatic tensions, they expressed hope that this year he will be able to lay the foundations of his government’s foreign policy and set strategic long-term goals.

“It is hard to say that the Kan Cabinet has been effectively laying down long-term strategic foreign policies based on Japan’s national interests,” said Akihiko Tanaka, professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo. “But as Kan himself said, he has been operating on a learner’s permit and what is important is what the prime minister intends to do now, with a full license.”

For the past couple of months, Kan’s Cabinet has been making headlines for its unpopularity, largely stemming from its perceived weak handling of diplomatic disputes with China and Russia over long-standing territorial issues.

But despite the public’s dissatisfaction and the media bashing Kan received, analysts were relatively sympathetic to the prime minister and blamed many of his diplomatic woes on his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, who failed to deliver on his promise to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of Okinawa.

“Not only did Hatoyama turn the Futenma issue into something more difficult to resolve, he also made it hard for the new DPJ-led government to focus on setting a new diplomatic path,” Tanaka said. “Hatoyama squandered the time the DPJ needed to lay out global strategies, and in the end, that is why the government could only take ad hoc measures against the Chinese trawler’s incursion into disputed waters near the Senkaku Islands (in September).”

Kan took over in June after the abrupt resignation of Hatoyama, who quit after hugely disappointing Okinawan locals eager to move the Futenma base out of the prefecture and after triggering the distrust of the U.S., Japan’s bilateral partner, for trying to back out of a 2006 bilateral agreement to move the base to Henoko, in the north of Okinawa Island.

Analysts praised Kan for restoring normality to foreign policy, as opposed to the unconventional Hatoyama, whose moves were almost impossible to predict, they said.

“Usually, you can’t pull off magic tricks in diplomacy,” Tanaka said. “Rather than trying out unconventional methods, it is better to use diplomats and implement normal diplomacy.”

With the DPJ’s foreign policy back on track, Tanaka pointed out that the party now needs to devise a comprehensive global strategy to tackle various key issues, including climate change, official development assistance, the participation of the Self-Defense Forces in U.N. peacekeeping operations, and Japan’s possible participation in a U.S.-backed trans-Pacific free-trade agreement.

“Japan needs to seriously think about what kind of identity it wants to have in the world,” Tanaka said. “And I think that the DPJ will be able to find its own way of holding discussions to identify and prioritize these various global objectives.”

While future bilateral relations are difficult to predict, one thing that is certain is that 2012 could see major political changes in the U.S., Russia and South Korea, which are all slated to hold presidential elections, and also in China, which is scheduled for a change in leadership.

This year, therefore, will be important for Japan to prepare itself for the possible changes, said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation think tank.

“It may seem like the calm before the storm, and this preparation period before the turning point is extremely important,” Watanabe said.

The first thing Kan needs to do is re-establish firm relations with the U.S., Watanabe said. Kan and President Barack Obama agreed to hold a summit in Washington this spring, and are expected to release a joint statement on the security alliance. The bilateral treaty marked its 50th anniversary last year but ties between Tokyo and Washington were strained at the time over the relocation of the Futenma base.

“For a while, everything stopped between Japan and the U.S. because the Okinawa base issue was put on hold,” Watanabe said. “So now, what Japan needs to do is provide politically creative ideas to see a breakthrough (in discussions on bilateral relations on a comprehensive level). . . . The ball is in Japan’s court.”

At the same time, however, Okinawa must not be left unattended to, Watanabe said. Amid strong local antibase sentiment, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima recently won his second term as governor on a ticket opposing the base’s relocation within the prefecture.

“The relocation won’t happen soon,” Watanabe said, adding that this is not necessarily an obstacle as long as the Japan-U.S. alliance continues to move forward. “So, what the Japanese government needs to do is talk to Washington about what to do in the meantime and to Okinawa to discuss” future conditions and options, he said.

The other crucial relationship that needs to be worked on is with China.

Ties with Beijing deteriorated alarmingly last fall following the collision between a Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, over which Japan has administrative control but are claimed by China and Taiwan.

After Tokyo arrested and detained the fishing boat’s skipper, China retaliated by suspending ministerial-level and cultural ties and allegedly halted shipments of rare-earth metals to Japan. In the end, the Japanese government gave in and released the Chinese captain amid China’s aggressive tactics, which were criticized by the international community.

Many analysts said the incident was a wakeup call for Japan. The Senkaku run-in “was a blessing in disguise,” Watanabe said. “I think the Kan administration and many Japanese voters learned that militaristic force like the Japan-U.S. alliance and the Self-Defense Forces is what keeps other countries on alert and helps maintain balance (in the region).”

Analysts said China saw a weakening of the Japan-U.S. security alliance and seized the opportunity to test it.

Tanaka of the University of Tokyo said that while the Japan-U.S. pact is not the only vital relationship, bilateral ties affect other countries as well.

“I think we’ve seen in the past 1 1/2 years what happens when Japan-U.S. relations are not on good terms — Japan’s relations with other countries also deteriorate,” Tanaka said. “What Japan needs to do is strengthen ties with the U.S. and then form good relations with other countries such as China.”