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Priority on healing DPJ rift, not meeting challenges

Foreign, defense picks disappoint analysts

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s choice of ministers for foreign diplomacy and security reflects an emphasis on fence-mending in his party rather than plans to address imminent diplomatic challenges, analysts said Friday.

The appointment of Koichiro Genba as foreign minister and Yasuo Ichikawa as defense minister drew criticism from pundits concerned about Japan’s weakening global presence amid the rapidly changing international environment.

Genba, a sixth-term Lower House lawmaker who previously served as state minister for science and technology, has little known experience in diplomacy but backed Noda during the Democratic Party of Japan presidential election.

Ichikawa, on the other hand, is a close ally of DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, raising speculation that Noda’s appointments were based not on experience but on maintaining party balance by picking lawmakers from various factions.

“Noda’s choice for ministers shows he is lacking a sense of crisis,” said Toshikazu Inoue, a professor at Gakushuin University and an expert on foreign policy.

“I am saddened that ministers responsible for the nation’s foreign and security policy were decided based on party politics rather than experience,” Inoue said.

He said the Noda administration will continue to emphasize ties with the United States as the centerpiece of Japanese diplomacy.

But involvement in other global issues — including the civilian uprisings sweeping the Middle East and the European financial crisis — will be kept to a minimum while the nation deals with post-March 11 reconstruction and the stagnant domestic economy.

During a telephone conversation between Noda and U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday, the two confirmed that the bilateral alliance is the cornerstone for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and agreed to arrange a top-level meeting during the U.N. General Assembly later this month in New York.

On the contentious issue of the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Noda has backed the 2006 agreement between Japan and the U.S. to relocate the facility to the Henoko area in Nago from Ginowan, both on Okinawa Island.

However, the relocation has been deadlocked by strong local opposition.

Inoue said Noda and the DPJ administration won’t risk hurting ties with the U.S. by prioritizing the interests of Okinawans, and said that this, in a sense, will lead to closer ties with the U.S. compared with the administration of Yukio Hatoyama, the first DPJ prime minister.

Hatoyama touched off tension with the U.S. when he pledged to move the base out of Okinawa. He later backtracked, drawing much criticism from Okinawans, then stepped down.

“I expect Genba, the new foreign minister, to generally abide by Noda’s approach on diplomacy,” Inoue said.

And while Noda has raised eyebrows in China and South Korea with past comments regarding Class-A war criminals, experts say he will likely keep his distance from the sensitive subject now that he has become prime minister.

Noda recently stirred controversy by reiterating his view that Japan’s Class-A war criminals were vindicated by the San Francisco Treaty, which was signed in 1951 by Japan and the Allied countries to legally end the state of war.

His remark drew harsh criticism from South Korea.

“Noda has toned down on the issue since he was elected prime minister,” said Mineo Nakajima, president of Akita International University and an expert on Japan-China relations.

Nakajima said that while Noda will have to be careful now that he has become prime minister, he will also be asked to take a tough stance on territorial issues in the face of China’s military expansion.

Tokyo and Beijing are in a diplomatic spat that started last year when a Chinese trawler had a run-in with Japan Coast Guard cutters trying to shoo the vessel away from the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands, which China also claims.

“Territorial issues are very difficult to deal with, no matter who is prime minister. Japan can only continue to stand its ground,” Nakajima said.

“In that sense, I must say I am a bit worried with his choice of foreign and defense ministers. I’m not even aware of what experience Mr. Ichikawa has in security,” he said.

Paul Scott, a political science professor at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka Prefecture, echoed this sentiment, saying that with mounting global issues, Japan doesn’t have time to fiddle around with intraparty politics.

He said the list of Japan’s foreign policy tasks is almost endless, citing a surging China, an America that seems almost in retreat, austerity budgets, North Korea, global warming and maritime security.

“Japan could certainly take the lead in many contemporary issues, but for the time being it will be lucky if it can just follow. . . . Frankly, Japan does not have time for its new foreign minister to undertake on-the-job training,” he said.