2012 is shaping up to be full of diplomatic challenges for Japan and the world.
From the financial crisis in Europe and the helm change sparked by the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to the leadership elections looming across the United States, Russia, China, the Middle East and other parts of the world, the international community will be tested in unprecedented ways.
Experts say the key to avoiding global fallout will be to establish a firm diplomatic framework involving Japan, the U.S. and China.
“It is extremely important to include China in a trilateral framework and not view it as a risk factor,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the think tank Tokyo Foundation. “It’s got money, and now we must see what kind of responsibility China is ready to take.”
The U.S., China and Japan are the top three economies and together account for about 40 percent of global GDP, according to the 2011 data compiled by the Foreign Ministry. While Japan and the U.S. continue to suffer snowballing debts, all eyes are on China, which has been noncommittal about stepping up.
“China can make up for where the U.S. and Japan fall short. It is in the best interests of all nations to maintain order throughout the year and stabilize the (global) economy,” Watanabe said.
China’s role, however, goes beyond money: It is close to Pyongyang, which is still mourning the loss of its leader. Given the North’s nuclear arms and missile threats, surrounding nations are on alert, including Japan, which has been ordered by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to “prepare for the unexpected.”
“The two most pressing issues are to put a stop to the EU financial crisis and to make sure North Korea has a soft landing . . . and it is up to Japan and the U.S. to involve China in securing regional stability — a super win-win-win situation for all,” Watanabe said.
But at the same time, experts agree it won’t be easy to work with China.
Mineo Nakajima, president of Akita International University and an expert on Japan-China relations, pointed out that many parts of Asia have territorial gripes with China.
“Japan-U.S. relations are the base, not only for Japan but for the whole Asia-Pacific region, including Australia and New Zealand, because China is becoming more assertive in the South China Sea,” Nakajima said.
Tensions with China have particularly mounted over rival claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and other parts of Asia to all or parts of the Spratly Islands. And Washington has invited Beijing’s wrath by signalling it plans to intercede in the disputes.
“The U.S. has taken a major shift from when it considered China a counterpart — it is now on guard against China,” Nakajima said.
2012 also marks the 40th anniversary of the normalization of Tokyo-Beijing diplomatic relations. Bilateral ties suffered a serious setback in September 2010 when Japan Coast Guard boats clashed with a Chinese trawler while trying to shoo the boat away from the Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan.
The trawler skipper was arrested and detained for weeks. A video of the collisions leaked to the Internet only inflamed matters.
China in return canceled high-level meetings and halted shipments of rare earth metals, which are crucial to electronics industries. China has been the main source of the materials.
The two governments are now planning events to celebrate the 40th anniversary and to take the opportunity to deepen ties.
But Nakajima said that instead of “superficial friendly ties,” Japan should be honest about its position.
“China takes shrewd diplomatic measures. . . . Therefore, Japan needs to stand up and say what it needs to say, not assume a low profile,” Nakajima said.
There are also political changes in the offing. China is expected to install a new leader next fall. Elections will also take place in the U.S., France, Russia, Taiwan and South Korea. And Pyongyang’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, is solidifying his position.
Prime Minister Noda faces the prospect of re-election as president of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan in September, but speculation is growing that there will be a general election before then and possibly new leaders.
“There is the possibility that the international situation would become fluid and complex in unprecedented ways, and it may be headed in a dangerous direction, but Japan does not have the diplomatic ability to control it,” Nakajima said.
Watanabe of Tokyo Foundation, an expert on Japan-U.S. relations, praised Noda’s team for recent decisions, including joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks and easing the de facto ban on arms exports.
Tokyo-Washington ties, which were also rocky for a while over the contentious relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, are back on track, Watanabe said.
“What is important is for Japan and the U.S. to share the big picture — the weight of (the alliance)” he said. The decisions Noda made in 2011 “will be the foundation for the coming year. And he has no time to stop — he needs to keep moving forward.”