National | VIEW FROM OSAKA

Kansai executives offer advice on improving nation's diplomacy

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

‘Track II diplomacy” is the official neutral-sounding phrase used to refer to diplomatic efforts by “nonstate” actors. In thriller films and books, it’s usually portrayed as a game of shadows between powerful but mysterious groups and individuals who may, or may not, be working to save the world.

Hollywood-style drama aside, Track II diplomacy, at its most transparent, plays a vital role in a country’s international relations, and involves businesses, NGOs, academic experts, and others. Certainly corporations in Japan are not shy about Track II diplomacy and The Kansai Association of Corporate Executives is particularly vocal, sending missions abroad to discuss Japan’s diplomacy and security.

In a report released last month, the association showed it was capable of outside-the-box thinking. The Kansai region has long had stronger trade relations with East and Southeast Asia than the Tokyo region. Kansai’s political and economic leaders have never made their “Asia First” worldview a secret.

Such views are reflected in the report when they worry Japanese diplomacy may be too America-centric. A potentially dangerous policy, given uncertainties about the mercurial U.S. President Donald Trump and what Kansai (and much of Japan) sees as a more isolationist U.S. Time to put more emphasis on Asia, is the advice.

If the report had stopped there, it would have been dismissed, rightly, as the usual thinking from Kansai. This time, however, the corporate executives offered specific suggestions for more fundamental improvements of the nation’s diplomatic structure as it faces the reality of a rapidly aging society, declining birthrate and the prospect of a shrinking traditional diplomatic corps.

The first proposal is to revamp the current national examination system in order to allow more people in the private sector with overseas knowledge and language skills to become involved with formal diplomacy. Their second proposal is to establish a national graduate school that specializes in training students to think more effectively about diplomatic and security issues, with the hope that graduates go on to a career as diplomatic specialists.

The Kansai business leaders envision classes attended by Japanese with backgrounds in politics and international relations and being tutored by Japanese and international diplomatic and security experts while networking with foreign scholars from international universities and think tanks. The new graduate school would also offer high-level foreign language training, with an emphasis on the kinds of language and communication skills needed in modern diplomatic negotiations.

The proposal is to be welcomed for offering sincere answers to very difficult questions about what, exactly, the structure of diplomacy in 21st century should be, and not only in Japan. Nobody would disagree that diplomats everywhere need all the help they can get. Or that Japanese diplomats, notoriously reticent at international conferences and often quite poor at dealing with the international media, would benefit from increased language and communication training.

But the private sector is ultimately responsible only to the needs of a narrow group of shareholders, not the country. Business is about making a profit this quarter. Diplomacy is, ultimately, about the art of preventing war. A corps of professional diplomats who don’t also have complex financial ties and personal loyalties to private firms is a good thing, not a bad thing.

In an age where corporations exercise more influence over our lives than ever, it’s easy to assume business types playing a bigger role in official diplomacy is desirable, natural and inevitable. The proposals of the Kansai executives will sound good to many. But attempts by those heretofore involved in Track II diplomacy to jump onto Track I diplomacy without first establishing clear lines of responsibility, high standards of transparency, and strict legal accountability risks running Japan’s diplomatic efforts off the rails.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.