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Paying Aso back with praise

Ranking officials at the Foreign Ministry appear more preoccupied with presenting Prime Minister Taro Aso as dexterous at diplomacy than promoting the national interest. One official has confided that it is now their turn to return the favor given to them when Aso was foreign minister.

Before Aso headed the ministry, its bureaucrats had had bitter experiences with two previous foreign ministers: Makiko Tanaka, who locked horns with them, and Yoriko Kawaguchi, who was such a political lightweight that they had little to gain from her.

When Aso got the foreign affairs portfolio in 2005, Foreign Ministry bureaucrats rejoiced as he was a politician who could become a leading candidate to take the reins of government. Indeed, Aso helped realize some long-cherished dreams of bureaucrats by promoting liberalism and the market economy, strengthening Japan’s relations with countries like Australia and India, and visiting the Mideast and Latin America.

Since Aso became prime minister last September, ministry officials have taken pains to impress the nation that he has built up personal relations of mutual trust with leaders of other countries. Specifically, they have claimed that French President Nicolas Sarkozy feels very close to Aso, and that Chinese officials took notes diligently to record Aso’s words during his meeting with a Chinese leader. Strangely, though, such words of praise for his diplomatic skills have not been heard from either France or China.

Even though the prime minister’s popularity plummeted due largely to a series of gaffes and lack of leadership, Foreign Ministry officials endeavored to help him win a reputation as an outstanding diplomat. These officials are said to have a sort of “inferiority complex” in that they compare themselves with counterparts in other ministries who exert much influence by protecting vested interests.

Earlier this year, the Foreign Ministry worked hard to bring to fruition Aso’s dream of meeting with new U.S. President Barack Obama as early as possible. That enabled him to become the first foreign head of government to be invited to the White House on Feb. 24.

But that was the limit of what the ministry officials could do, as their request for a joint press conference after the meeting was not granted by the U.S. side. Other than meeting with Obama, Aso’s short stay in Washington was devoid of anything substantial, as he returned home after having lunch with former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and other people well-versed in Japanese affairs.

This contrasts starkly with a visit to Washington by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in March. Following their meeting, Brown and Obama held a lengthy joint press conference, and the British leader was invited to the Capitol to address a joint session of Congress.

Even more damaging to Japan’s national interests was the failure to win Washington’s support for sanctions against North Korea. Immediately after Pyongyang’s launch of a rocket April 5, Japan and the United States joined hands in proposing that the U.N. Security Council adopt a binding resolution for imposing stronger sanctions. The debate at the council stalled as the proposal was opposed by China and Russia, both with veto power.

This led Aso to declare to Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura and other government leaders that he himself would persuade Chinese Premier Wei Jiabao to fall in line with Washington and Tokyo. Before Aso departed for Bangkok for talks with the Chinese and South Korean leaders, however, a compromise was reached between Washington and Beijing to condemn North Korea: A nonbinding statement from the president of the Security Council was adopted instead of a formal resolution. The Japanese Foreign Ministry had misled Aso into believing that the U.S. would be especially hard on North Korea this time.

Another blunder committed by Aso and the ministry was their failure to follow up on the 2008 summit meeting of the group of eight industrialized nations in Hokkaido in July 2008, which was presided over by his predecessor, Yasuo Fukuda. Although the prime minister and the ministry sought to lead the eight countries in coping with the global financial crisis, they could not draw up specifics and the European Union agreed with the U.S. to hold a top-level meeting of 20 nations representing not only the industrialized world but also the emerging economies.

This wasn’t the first time that Japanese diplomacy had gone astray as a result of the Foreign Ministry trying to curry favor with top politicians. Under Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, the ministry worked for the reversion of the northern islands, which have been under Russian occupation since the closing days of World War II. Under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the ministry sought a permanent seat for Japan in the U.N. Security Council, and under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it campaigned for the return of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea.

All of these moves were meant to give a boost to the nation’s chief executives, but every attempt failed and disappointed the citizens. A fatal mistake was made in judging the position of the U.S. government with respect to Japan’s aspirations to become a permanent Security Council member. Foreign Ministry officials sought to form an alliance with Germany, India and Brazil, all of which had similar aspirations, in total disregard of President George W. Bush’s staunch opposition to giving such status to Germany.

Japan has failed in its all-important campaigns to regain sovereignty over the northern islands and to become a permanent member of the Security Council. It is about time that Foreign Ministry bureaucrats learn the folly of trying to help politicians score points.

The very act of trying to boost the Foreign Ministry bureaucrats’ political influence in Nagata-cho, Japan’s Capitol Hill, only leads to diplomacy that damages national interests.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the May issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic issues.