Rows pull diplomatic shortcomings to fore

Neighbors said probing for weaknesses

by and

First China, and now Russia. Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his administration’s apparent lack of experience is allowing neighboring nations to take territorial advantage over Japan to the alarm of experts.

As China tests the waters over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and as Russia looks to strengthen its rule of the islands it holds off Hokkaido, it looks like Japan once again has no one else to turn to but the United States.

Since September 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan took power, it has focused on exerting “political leadership” to hobble the role of bureaucrats in setting policy, but so far Kan’s administration has failed to wield any diplomatic clout, said Takashi Kawakami, a professor of security issues at Takushoku University.

“Political leadership has been the key (for the DPJ) and the bureaucrats were excluded,” Kawakami said. “But the prime minister’s office has no clear organization yet and has not been able to function.”

On Monday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev became the first leader of his country to visit Kunashiri Island, one of the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido that Japan wants returned, triggering bilateral tensions. Japan meanwhile also engaged in the diplomatic spat with China over the Senkaku Islands since a run-in near the islets involving a Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard vessels in September.

One key reason why Japan is struggling over these diplomatic issues is the lack of a strong communications pipeline with these countries, critics said.

“The connections with other countries are falling apart,” Kawakami said. “Our territories are (at risk) . . . and everything is a mess.”

Ever since the DPJ took power last year, confusion has characterized diplomacy.

The first DPJ prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, made it a campaign pledge to push for relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma outside Okinawa, only to renege and dash the prefecture’s expectations.

This strained ties with the U.S. and was seen as offering China and Russia an opportunity to challenge the security alliance.

But the island disputes have brought Japan and the U.S. closer, as Washington had hoped, Kawakami said, adding this elevated the importance of the U.S. bases in Okinawa.

In a meeting Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara that the Senkaku Islands are considered Japanese territory under the bilateral security treaty.

Kawakami noted that as U.S. power declines while China’s rises, Japan in the middle must play an “equal” role with both nations.

“But if Japan had considered its own national interests, the outcome of Japan’s relations with China, Russia and the U.S. would have been different,” he said. “I think Japanese diplomacy may be at its worst in postwar history.”

Kan’s failure on the diplomatic front is expected to give the opposition camp more ammunition to use against the DPJ administration, making the already tough environment in the Diet even more difficult.

The Lower House on Tuesday started deliberating a supplementary budget for this fiscal year — a priority for Kan — a day late due to a threatened opposition boycott.

The delay could threaten the budget’s passage.

If the opposition votes down the budget in the Upper House, where the DPJ-led coalition lacks a majority, it takes 30 days after Lower House passage for the budget to automatically clear the Diet. This means the extra budget must clear the Lower House by Thursday if the Diet session is not to be extended.

In exchange for joining the budget deliberations, the opposition camp has been pushing the DPJ to summon party heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa to the Diet to give sworn testimony on his financial scandal.

But Ozawa has refused to meet DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada, who wants him to testify before the Diet’s political ethics panel.

Frustrated by Ozawa’s refusal and having nothing concrete to offer the opposition, all Okada could promise was to try his best to get the kingpin to testify.

“I don’t think we should take too much time on this as it may lead to political distrust,” Okada told his fellow lawmakers. “I will make my utmost as secretary general (to persuade him to testify) in the current Diet session.”

With Diet steering becoming increasingly difficult, the DPJ is likely to reach out to New Komeito, which was part of the LDP-led ruling coalition, for cooperation, said Fukashi Horie, former president of Shobi University and a political science expert.

“New Komeito may hold the decisive vote,” Horie said, adding the DPJ’s need to gain its cooperation will increase in the ordinary Diet session when the fiscal 2011 budget comes up for deliberation.