Spare a thought for the puzzle that will meet foreign delegations to the Group of Eight Summit in Hokkaido on July 7. On the one hand they will find a nation that organizes itself with clockwork perfection. Indeed, the summit organization will almost certainly be over-perfection, with every detail scripted and rehearsed to extremes.
But when it comes to foreign or economic policy, expect confusion and contradiction, also to extremes.
Take the foreign policy issue that dominates most Japanese minds: Tokyo’s now frustrated hopes that Pyongyang would remain on U.S. terrorist nation lists until it returned a dozen or so Japanese citizens said to have been abducted two or more decades ago.
Even allowing for the attractive way Japan frets over any of its citizens in trouble abroad, its actions seem exaggerated. They involve the highly dubious DNA testing of bones, in a bid to prove Pyongyang is lying and to exploit the sorrow of grieving parents who believe their daughter is still alive. They require Japan to insist that any and all Japanese who have disappeared in North Korea are abductees when it is quite possible some may have other reasons to be there. They assume that only rigid confrontation can solve problems with North Korea, despite the historic 2002 abductee breakthrough to Pyongyang proving the virtues of careful diplomacy. And they have led Japan to try to delay the all-important denuclearization of North Korea over an issue that most others see as peripheral.
From North Korea the attention will probably move to Japan’s territorial dispute with Moscow — ownership of four islands or island groups just to the east of Hokkaido. There, too, contradictions abound. One is the fact that Japan formally rejected all right, claim and title to most of the disputed territory in its 1951 San Francisco peace treaty. Another is that Japanese negotiators in the mid-1950s twice accepted a generous Moscow compromise that would have returned one disputed island (Shikotan) and the Habomai island group, only to have the compromise rejected by all-or-nothing domestic conservatives, encouraged by a Washington keen to have Japan continue the Cold War confrontation with Moscow.
Yet it was the same Washington that in 1951 almost certainly forced Japan to give up its legitimate rights to the disputed islands, as part of a secret U.N. deal with Moscow allowing the U.S. to use Guam as a military base — a fact that if admitted would greatly strengthen Tokyo’s position. Instead, Tokyo prefers hardline economic reprisals against Moscow, even as it begs Moscow for supplies of gas.
Nor is it just Moscow. Japan’s muddled, nationalistic hardline over territory leaves it at loggerheads with all its other neighbors — South Korea, China and Taiwan. That the dispute with Taiwan over the Senkaku islands should have led to a semi-formal break in relations is a much more serious setback for Japan’s diplomacy than anyone in Japan seems to want to realize.
True, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda cannot be blamed for this confusion. He inherited these problems and is trying to make the best of things by focusing on global environment and world economic problems. But even here he is undercut by the past. He can hardly tell others how to run their economies when Japan’s own economy remains crippled by past bad management — in particular the imposition of deflationary policies on a chronically deflated economy while rejecting the advice of some top U.S. economists pointing out how Japan can reflate without public debt problems.
Even Fukuda’s one positive achievement — the recent agreement with Beijing to allow joint development of ocean gas fields close to but on the Chinese side of Japan’s claimed economic exclusion zone (EEZ) in the East China Sea — could come under threat.
Tokyo has long insisted that only the median (equidistance) line between China and Japan can demarcate over-lapping EEZ claims. Beijing says the continental shelf, which runs close to Okinawa, should be the demarcation line. As a compromise it proposes joint oil and gas development between the rival claims — a seemingly reasonable proposal, particularly since any gas found will probably have to be taken to China for sale or processing anyway.
But for Japan’s nationalistic rightwing, Beijing’s continental shelf/joint development claim is illegal and proof of evil intent. This, despite the fact that an International Court ruling on EEZ demarcation principles has yet to be made, and there are important precedents for the Chinese continental shelf proposal, the latest being Canberra’s joint development agreement with East Timor.
What’s more, Japan has long had a Chinese-style agreement with South Korea, calling for joint development between rival median line and continental shelf claims in waters right alongside to those now in dispute with Tokyo. Few seem aware of this contradiction.
As a foreign policy moderate with some international experience, Fukuda could no doubt with time try to solve some of these problems. But already the rightwing is seeking his removal. Japan’s strange mix of close and intelligent attention to practical problems at home and sloppy, ad hoc handling of abstract problems abroad and in the economy seems likely to be with us for some time.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.