WASHINGTON – In the wake of the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling bloc victory in the Upper House election in July, Shinzo Abe appears set to eclipse Yasuhiro Nakasone this year as the fourth-longest-serving prime minister in postwar Japan.
But as many point out, the issue is not how long Abe has been in power but what he has done for peace and prosperity in Japan and other parts of the world, particularly in Asia. China is pressing territorial claims in the South and East China seas, North Korea is stepping up nuclear weapons development, and South Korea is politically at odds with Japan and economically dependent on China — all pressing issues for Abe and his administration.
George Washington University professor Henry Nau wonders if Abe will match Nakasone, who built close ties with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during his prime ministership from 1982 to 1987, in terms of diplomatic skill and the scope of his strategic vision.
Recalling the 1983 summit of the Group of Seven industrialized nations in Williamsburg, Virginia, Nau, a former “sherpa,” or personal representative, of Reagan at G-7 summits, says he was overwhelmed by Nakasone’s vision of how to get Japan involved in world affairs and elevate the country’s status as a major global, not just an Asian, power.
When then French President Francois Mitterrand said Japan did not need to get involved in talks about the possible deployment of mid-range nuclear weapons in Europe to counter Soviet SS-20 missiles, a key issue at the summit, Nakasone stepped in and said, “Mr. Mitterrand, you don’t understand.
“I’m all alone out there in Asia. I don’t have the European Union. I don’t have all these democratic partners that you have in Europe,” Nau quoted Nakasone as telling his counterparts from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the United States. “I need the United States and I need you. So that’s why I’m part of what’s going on here.”
Speaking in an interview in Washington, Nau said Nakasone “saw Japan in a big picture of how it’s going to relate to the world, how it’s going to relate to America, how it’s going to relate to Europe and most of all how it’s going to stand firm in Asia against Soviet communism.
“Mr. Nakasone was not taking Japan step by step. It was a very telling moment for me in terms of Japan’s joining a bigger world,” he said, explaining that prime ministers before Nakasone had almost exclusively focused on how to manage Japan’s relationship with the United States.
Citing Nakasone’s broad foreign policy vision, the U.S. political scientist urged Abe to achieve rapprochement with South Korea as part of a broader plan to position Japan as leader, if not the co-leader with the United States, for the stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region based on the rule of law.
As director of the U.S-Japan-South Korea Legislative Exchange Program, Nau is a staunch advocate of firmer Tokyo-Seoul ties and robust trilateral coordination with Washington in the face of an increasingly assertive China and a North Korea in pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile technology.
He hailed recent progress between Japan and South Korea over the “comfort women” who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II, and commended Abe’s restraint in not visiting the war-related Yasukuni Shrine on the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s surrender. Such actions marked an “important step” for the two countries to put history behind them and move their relationship forward, he said.
Nau appreciated South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s call Monday for forging “future-oriented” ties with Japan, but criticized the landing the same day by a bipartisan group of South Korean lawmakers on a pair of Seoul-held but Tokyo-claimed islets in the Sea of Japan. “Don’t create a provocation for the sake of a provocation,” he said.
Last week, Japan and South Korea affirmed details of a ¥1 billion ($9.8 million) injection Tokyo will promptly make into the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, which Seoul launched in July in line with a landmark deal the two governments struck last December to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the comfort women issue.
Nau, however, argued individual action such as handling the comfort women issue and not visiting Yasukuni Shrine is not enough, especially when Abe is initiating a process to amend the Constitution, possibly including its war-renouncing Article 9.
South Korea and China view Yasukuni, which honors convicted war criminals along with millions of war dead, as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism. Abe’s last pilgrimage to the Tokyo shrine in December 2013 sharply soured Japan’s relations with its two neighbors.
Nau recommended Abe unveil an “ambitious initiative” toward South Korea that includes not only continued efforts to address the comfort women issue and refraining from visiting Yasukuni, but expanding youth and other people-to-people exchanges for greater mutual understanding and reviving leaders’ reciprocal visits for regular summits.
Such visits, known as “shuttle diplomacy,” have been suspended since 2011.
Nau stressed such a diplomatic package is particularly important as Abe moves to change the Constitution. “Terribly important for him, at the same time that he solves this issue domestically in Japan, he does it without frightening anybody in the region. And he does it while strengthening Japan’s critical ties with South Korea and the United States.”
The current Constitution drafted under the U.S.-led Allied Occupation after World War II has never been altered since its promulgation in 1946.
“You’ve got to do it as a major overall program — to say we are ready now to move to another phase of stability and peace in Asia, and here’s a new basis on which that will happen,” he said. “Above all, don’t do it piecemeal.”
Nau suggested that Abe also craft a similar initiative toward China for reassurance.
“If Mr. Abe can do it in a big framework like this, then he will measure up in my mind to statesmen like Mr. Nakasone,” said Nau, who in April received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon from the Japanese government for his contribution to promoting legislative exchanges and mutual understanding between Japan and the United States.
Nau believes Abe is in a position to take such an initiative. “And this is when he could rise above and reassure people about his truly broad vision, not just a kind of reactionary nationalist vision, but an inspiring internationalist vision to exercise joint leadership with democratic allies in the region and world and simultaneously resurrect Japanese pride at home,” he added.
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