Despite achieving his prized policy goal of raising the sales tax, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is facing a diplomatic double whammy of territorial disputes with China and South Korea that could deal a fatal blow to his party’s three-year rule.
While South Korean President Lee Myung Bak has made provocative remarks against Japan and controversially visited a group of islets in the Sea of Japan claimed by both Tokyo and Seoul, China has also rekindled the dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Behind their hardline stance is that Noda, who heads the Democratic Party of Japan, had been too preoccupied with the consumption tax issue since taking office last September and failed to devise detailed diplomatic strategies, in particular regarding Japan-U.S. relations, according to analysts and leading politicians.
They say that given the DPJ’s dismal support ratings, in large part due to the unpopular proposal to double the sales tax by 2015, Noda’s diplomatic handling of the territorial issues could hurt the ruling party even more and crush its chances of winning the next general election.
“There is little doubt that the DPJ will be thrown out of power” in the next Lower House election, which has to be held by summer 2013, political analyst Norio Toyoshima said.
Support ratings for Noda’s Cabinet have been stuck below 30 percent and could fall further given the current diplomatic problems.
On Aug. 10, the day the Diet enacted legislation to carry out the tax hike, Lee made an unprecedented trip to one of the sparsely inhabited islets known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea.
A few days after his visit to the Seoul-controlled outcroppings, Lee urged Emperor Akihito to apologize for Japan’s past colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula if he wishes to visit South Korea, triggering controversy in both countries.
On Wednesday, the 67th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, Chinese activists arrived at the Senkaku Islands aboard a Hong Kong vessel. Authorities arrested 14 people, including seven who landed on the islet of Uotsuri, for violating the immigration control law.
Though there were calls to prosecute those who set foot on Uotsuri, the government decided to instead deport all 14 Chinese in a move aimed at ratcheting down friction with Beijing but criticized by some in Japan as weak-kneed.
It was “natural” for such developments to occur because the government is run by a “prime minister who can’t think of anything but a consumption tax hike,” Yoshimi Watanabe, head of the opposition Your Party, said in a statement Friday.
Noda, the third prime minister since the DPJ took office in 2009, has mainly concentrated on the tax hike while expending much time and energy trying to keep a lid on bitter divisions within the party.
On the diplomatic front, Noda has pledged to make efforts to deepen ties with the United States. The relationship soured after Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama sought to move the U.S. Futenma air station out of Okinawa Prefecture, a proposal that ran against a bilateral agreement reached in 2006.
But Noda has made no significant progress in advancing pending matters between Tokyo and Washington, such as the Futenma relocation and Japan’s participation in talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade framework, further blurring the outlook of U.S.-Japan relations.
“Politics is inward looking” in Japan, said Yoshio Urushibara, Diet affairs chief for New Komeito, the second-largest opposition party. “The U.S.-Japan relationship has become unstable under the DPJ-led government, allowing (China and South Korea) to take advantage of this.”
The government would like Washington to act as a deterrent to prevent Seoul and Beijing from exacerbating the territorial issues, but the United States has so far remained a silent observer.
As Noda has vowed to dissolve the Lower House for a general election relatively soon, “we don’t want to make a diplomatic blunder,” one of his aides said.
A government official, however, said “it will take time to rebuild relations” with Beijing and Seoul, which he believes indicates the recent foreign policy troubles would inevitably affect the outcome of an early election.
“We cannot allow Japan’s national interest to be damaged,” said Toshimitsu Motegi, policy chief of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party.
“We intend to implement solid diplomatic and security policies by returning to government as soon as possible,” Motegi said during an intraparty meeting Thursday, urging Noda to call a general election at an early date.
A DPJ lawmaker, meanwhile, said that “under such circumstances, we don’t want an election now” because it is clear the party would suffer a crucial setback.
“I hope Noda will delay the Lower House dissolution until Japan’s relations with China and South Korea are restored to a certain degree,” the lawmaker said.