Japan’s diplomatic outreach has grown since Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government was formed in September, but the real challenge — whether it can play a pivotal role in reshaping the order in the Asia-Pacific region — will come this year.
Noda has traveled abroad each month since his inauguration, checking off a long list of countries expecting a visit from Japan’s leader. The moves — not unlike the Japanese custom of yearend cleaning to usher in the new year with a fresh start — came after months of diplomatic stalemate under the previous leadership.
But the situation recently turned unexpectedly difficult, as if a toy box had been turned upside down and emptied in the final stages of cleaning.
Japan’s diplomatic resuscitation faced new challenges in December, most notably the abrupt announcement of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death, which injected new uncertainty into concerns about regional stability.
Many experts and policymakers say Japan must remain on high alert — and be prepared for any scenario — as the North’s opaque regime undergoes a leadership transition. But the experts also say that the fluid situation may herald new opportunities to strengthen regional cooperation.
Such partnerships should not only be with the United States, which began repositioning itself as a leader in the Asia-Pacific even before Kim’s death, said Keio University professor Yoshihide Soeya. Japan should make more efforts to work closely with South Korea.
“Now is the chance to define clearly why Japan and South Korea must have close ties,” said Soeya, who heads the Institute of East Asian Studies at Keio. “There is not a moment to lose for Tokyo and Seoul to create a concrete framework in which the two will be able to deal with North Korea and other difficult issues.”
In October, both Noda and Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba picked South Korea as the first country with which to hold bilateral talks — the first time a prime minister and a foreign minister both prioritized the South for one-to-one talks.
With this, diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Seoul — another close ally of Washington — appeared to be improving.
However, just a day before Kim’s death was announced on Dec. 19, one of several long-standing historical disputes between the Asian powers reignited.
At their meeting in Kyoto, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak for the first time urged Japan to resolve as soon as possible the issue of compensation for thousands of South Korean “comfort women” who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II, describing the issue as a major stumbling block in bilateral relations.
The United States has security alliances with Japan and South Korea, but there is no such partnership between Tokyo and Seoul, which appear to lack detailed contingency plans for a crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
“The clearer the need for cooperation becomes, the more likely, I believe, there will also be a new approach to overcome difficult problems,” Soeya said, suggesting the leaders of the two countries should come to grips with issues of the past, present and future in a comprehensive manner to ensure prosperity and stability in the region.
Enhanced cooperation may also be necessary for improving ties with China, another Asian power that has a tense relationship with Tokyo because of historical and territorial disputes.
As Japan and China celebrate the 40th anniversary this year of the normalization of diplomatic ties, opportunities will be ripe for officials to learn what they can do together to prevent relations from being seriously damaged.
Experts also say that China’s growing clout has raised alarm in a number of countries and that Japan needs to recognize there are limits to what it can do alone.
Excluding issues unique to bilateral relations, it would be much more realistic and effective for Japan to formulate policies toward China with other countries and in the context of establishing a new framework in East Asia, they said.
But regional cooperation may be put on the back-burner as the political landscape shifts this year.
Aside from the North Korean leader’s death, the Asia-Pacific region will also see this year a new leadership come to power in China, as well as presidential elections in Russia, South Korea and the United States — all members with Japan in the six-party talks on dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
There is also no guarantee that Noda, the sixth prime minister in five years, can stay in office through the end of this year.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Noda has eschewed “catchphrase diplomacy” and his way of managing international relations so far appears to be pragmatic, said Taizo Miyagi, an associate professor of international relations at Sophia University.
The grand diplomatic ambitions aired by Japan in recent years — most without any tangible progress — were accompanied by sensational slogans for each leader — Taro Aso’s “Arch of Freedom and Prosperity,” Yukio Hatoyama’s “East Asia Community” and Naoto Kan’s “Third Opening of Japan,” just to name a few. That, however, has not been the case with Noda.
“Those empty slogans were mainly aimed at Japan’s domestic audience,” Miyagi said, “To get real results, Japan should avoid seeking ostentatious diplomacy,” especially at a time when it is necessary to adapt to the rapidly changing environment in the region.