Kasumigaseki, Tokyo’s bureaucratic hub, has been in a political vacuum since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolved the House of Representatives on Aug. 8 — and diplomacy is no exception.

Even if Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party retains its majority and he stays at the helm, diplomacy may remain low-key because the government’s efforts are likely to be focused on getting his postal reform bills through the Diet.

Critics also warn that ties with the United States — the “honeymoon” relationship Koizumi has nurtured with U.S. President George W. Bush over the past four years — will be strained if the prime minister doesn’t pay much attention to pressing bilateral issues, including the U.S. military realignment in Japan.

Also, ties with China will worsen if he again visits Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals along with Japan’s war dead.

Even what is considered an unlikely scenario — the Democratic Party of Japan winning a majority and its president, Katsuya Okada, becoming prime minister — will present headaches for makers of foreign policy. The DPJ has prioritized diplomacy with Asia instead of with the U.S., raising concerns in Washington.

While Japan’s ties with China and South Korea might dramatically improve under DPJ leadership, Japanese-U.S. ties might suffer, the critics say. The DPJ also has called for the Self-Defense Forces to be pulled out of Iraq after Japan’s mission officially ends on Dec. 14.

So far, media polls suggest a DPJ-led government is unlikely, but it is still unclear if the LDP-New Komeito ruling coalition can retain its majority in the Lower House.

U.S. interests

After the Diet shakeup is over, the new administration will have to resume negotiations on the U.S. military realignment that have been delayed by the election.

One contentious spot in the talks is whether to abandon the contentious plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station to Nago, Okinawa, or find another site in Japan.

“If Mr. Koizumi himself does not take the initiative in coordinating with local government leaders, the issue will not be settled,” said Akihiko Tanaka, professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo.

Tanaka pointed out that Koizumi has not been able to address the issue because he’s used up most of his energy trying to pass the postal reform bills. This has frustrated U.S. bureaucrats.

“If the postal bills clear the Diet after the election, Mr. Koizumi will become a lame duck” until his term ends next September. This means he will probably not be able to take the leadership on such issues, he said.

Another contentious decision Japan needs to make is whether to extend the Self-Defense Forces’ mission in Iraq after Dec. 14.

Koizumi said Monday during a public debate in Tokyo with other party leaders that the interim Iraqi government has formally asked Japan to extend the SDF’s humanitarian mission another year.

Koizumi, however, declined comment on when the troops would be pulled out and only said he would consider the issue in December.

Koji Murata, professor of international relations at Doshisha University, noted that Japan’s decision to extend the mission may hinge on U.S. moves on U.N. Security Council reform. Japan, India, Germany and Brazil are campaigning to gain permanent seats on the UNSC.

The “Group of Four” failed to get their joint resolution on UNSC expansion put to a vote in the General Assembly in August because they couldn’t gain unified support from the African Union, which counts for 53 of of 191 votes in the U.N.

In apparent fear that UNSC reform would be scrapped, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan set a new deadline for the resolution in December — when Japan needs to decide on the SDF mission — although he initially hoped member states would reach an agreement by the U.N. summit in September.

“If UNSC reform is scrapped due to strong U.S. opposition, Japanese may nurture ill feelings toward the U.S. for not supporting Japan on U.N. reform, although it cooperated with the U.S. on Iraq,” Murata said. The U.S. doesn’t oppose Japan having a permanent UNSC seat, but it wants other U.N. reforms first.

Dealing with China

The issue of UNSC expansion may have strained ties between Tokyo and Washington, but it also threw more cold water on Japan’s relations with China, which launched a worldwide campaign to prevent Japan from gaining a permanent UNSC seat.

Bilateral ties soured in April after anti-Japanese rioters pelted Japanese diplomatic compounds in China with rocks, eggs, bottles and other projectiles in part to protest Japan’s apparent lack of atonement for its wartime aggression and over its quest for a permanent UNSC seat.

Tomoyuki Kojima, a professor on international relations at Keio University, criticized Koizumi for lacking a comprehensive strategy on China and making impromptu decisions to patch things up.

After Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine in August 2001, he suddenly went to Beijing two months later to meet with Chinese leaders and express remorse at Beijing’s Marco Polo Bridge, where a clash between the two nations in 1937 triggered war.

In a policy speech at China’s Boao in April 2002, Koizumi said he did not consider China’s economic development a threat to Japan — a remark Chinese officials repeatedly thanked him for.

But the friendly atmosphere lasted only for about a week, because Koizumi then made a second visit to Yasukuni, drawing China’s ire once again, Kojima said.

Kojima said Tokyo and Beijing should try not to stir up anti-Japanese sentiment in China and focus more on how the two countries are deeply intertwined in economics, politics and other areas.

If Koizumi emerges from the poll victorious, a key focus will be on whether he visits Yasukuni before the year ends.

“If he wins the election, there is a possibility that he may decide not to pay a visit,” Kojima said. “After all, he was visiting there to gain domestic support.”

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