Japanese diplomacy in the post-Cold War era has been mostly passive, except in a few groundbreaking areas such as participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations. One reason for this, according to a report from a foreign policy advisory group, is that the domestic political situation has remained unstable over the past decade or more. Japan has produced 11 prime ministers in the last 15 years.

Another reason is the entrenched tendency in government offices to honor tradition and protect their turf. Still another, and one that made headlines recently, relates directly to the Foreign Ministry: Over the past year or so, the ministry has been embroiled in a series of scandals, as well as internal disputes, that have eroded confidence in the foreign service.

In short, Tokyo’s reactive diplomatic stance is ascribed largely to negligence on the part of both politicians and bureaucrats. The report, titled “Japan’s Basic Diplomatic Strategy in the 21st Century,” was submitted to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in late November. It is the work of nine experts, including former ministry bureaucrat Yukio Okamoto, now a counselor to the Cabinet secretariat. The authors held more than 30 brainstorming sessions from September 2001.

The report reflects new realities in the world as it strives to establish a new order following the end of the East-West standoff and the Persian Gulf War. Two of the most important developments to date are the ascendancy of the United States as the sole superpower and the expansion of the European Union as a giant quasi-state.

“In order to conduct diplomacy a nation needs to formulate a clear-cut strategy,” says the document. “But Japan lacks that kind of strategy. More often than not, it settles for cosmetic measures.” It also points out that Japan is “liable to prioritize international cooperation in an unprincipled manner, instead of pursuing its own interests.”

The cardinal principle of diplomacy is to secure national security and promote the national interest. Of course, narrow-minded nationalism must be avoided, just as overdependence on a foreign power must be avoided. With the Cold War over, it is neither desirable nor permissible to pursue only economic growth under the security umbrella provided by the U.S.

From this point of view, the report calls for creating a “council on foreign policy and security strategy” that would report directly to the prime minister. The proposed body, however, is intended as a policy advisory panel of outside experts. As such, it is essentially different from the U.S. National Security Council, which advises the president regarding the integration and coordination of diplomatic, military and domestic policies.

There is concern that the council would open the way for “dual diplomacy,” with the prime minister’s office and the Foreign Ministry playing different diplomatic games. However, since the panel’s function would be to suggest policy guidelines from a multidimensional perspective, a sharing of roles would be possible as long as final decisions were made at the top of the government.

The report makes a number of notable points. The first point is this: The Japan-U.S. alliance should remain the linchpin of Japanese foreign policy, and on that basis the bilateral security system — including the presence of U.S. bases in Okinawa — should be redefined in sync with changes in the international situation. In this regard, the report strikes a cautious note on America’s inclination to unilateralism, saying “superpower” America could become less tolerant and more self-righteous in international relations.

The second point concerns the Japan-China relationship. The report defines China as “the most important theme of Japan’s external relations in the early 21st century,” and suggests that Japan “build future-oriented relations by freeing itself from the spell of history.” In other words, Japan is urged to develop a mature relationship with China so that together they can lead Asia.

Third, the report calls for a deepening of the debate on the right to collective self-defense so that Japan can take part in the collective security system. It also proposes protective action by Maritime Self-Defense Force ships in the Persian Gulf to secure the safe passage of Japanese oil tankers — a step that will likely raise constitutional questions.

Prime Minister Koizumi has welcomed the report, saying Japan “needs a new policy in the new age.” Indeed, the idea of a strategy council merits positive consideration. The important thing is to match words with deeds. Otherwise the proposed panel will end up as just another talking shop.

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