WASHINGTON, Nov 23 2006 (IPS) — After cultivating closer relations with its traditional ally the United States, Japan under new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe needs to refocus attention on Asia, say experts.
“Toward Asia, mainly because of the Yasukuni shrine issue, (former Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi’s policy was quite a fiasco,” Koji Murata, a professor of international security studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, said at a seminar this month on Japan’s new foreign policy challenges, organised by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
The Yasukuni shrine contains the remains of the country’s wartime leaders and Koizumi’s visits generated fierce criticism from countries like China and South Korea, which were occupied by imperial Japan in the thirties and forties.
The dimensions of this fiasco became clear in 2005 when Japan – along with Germany, Brazil, and India – made a bid for permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council. “In Europe, eleven countries supported the German proposal, including France,” Murata pointed out. “But in Asia, only three countries supported Japan’s proposal: Bhutan, the Maldives, and Afghanistan.” No countries in North-east or South-east Asia backed Japan.
But Abe’s trip to Seoul and Beijing immediately after taking office reflected Japan’s intention to improve its image in Asia.
According to Murata, the prime minister initially wanted to make his first trip to Washington, but the mid-term elections in early November preoccupied the Bush administration.
The second choice was India, but Koizumi had already made that visit and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to go to Japan before the of the year. A third choice, Thailand, was ruled out because of the Sep. 19 coup by the military.
The visit to Beijing, in particular, will prove critical in redefining Sino-Japanese relations.
Abe has adopted a “strategy of ambiguity” over Yasakuni, Murata argued. He has not yet backed a compromise position of constructing another national facility open to all religions that would honour those who died in World War II.
Japanese supporters of the Yasukuni visits are largely concerned about what they perceive as Chinese intervention in their domestic affairs. If China remains silent on the question, Murata maintained, then “many of those who used to support Koizumi’s Yasukuni shrine visits will lose interest in the issue. If both sides keep silent, then we will be able to find some kind of compromise,” at least at the diplomatic level.
Relations in the region have been plagued by historical problems, such as the content of Japanese textbooks on the country’s wartime record, the matter of the ‘comfort women’ or sex slaves the Japanese imperial troops had during its occupation of South-east Asian countries.
But North-east Asia has experienced a fundamental shift in the regional security environment, according to Wu Xinbo, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and associate dean at Fudan University in Shanghai.
“The very fact that the six countries in the Six-Party Talks are sitting together to talk about the North Korean nuclear issue is a new phenomenon that was not seen ten years ago, when we faced the first nuclear crisis,” Wu said.
Greater economic interdependence between China and Japan meanwhile “explains why Beijing has responded so quickly to the new Japanese prime minister’s efforts to try to reshape better relations when the opportunity presents itself,” according to Wu.
Balbina Hwang, visiting professor at Georgetown University, cast some doubt on growing interdependence in Asia. While China has become a key trading partner for Japan and South Korea and tourism among the three countries has increased, the rise in interaction has not generated interdependence or an emergent common identity. “Only when a region can begin to develop a common identity will cooperation breed security,” she opined.
Japan’s renewed attention toward Asian affairs is balanced by an equally strong effort to maintain its security relationship with the United States, Murata argued. The common conception is that Koizumi successfully bridged the gap with Washington. “For the first two years of his term, Koizumi hit several home runs in U.S.-Japan relations,” he said.
“Those years were successful mainly because it was an era of crisis, terrorism, and war. Koizumi was a leader suitable for an era of crisis.” The prime minister moved quickly to pass anti-terrorism measures and win approval for the dispatch of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces to Iraq.
But in the last three-plus years, Murata said, Koizumi made several mistakes. He failed to explain to the Japanese public the safety of importing U.S. beef and he did not show strong leadership on the transformation of the U.S. force posture in Japan.
Abe inherits this mixed record. He also must negotiate with a Japanese public that views the instability in the Middle East as a distant problem and worries about “being entrapped by a U.S. global strategy that may be dangerous for Japan,” according to Murata. At the same time, the public is concerned that “the United States might not help Japan in case of a real contingency.”
Abe will have to negotiate between these competing fears of entrapment and abandonment.
The North Korean nuclear issue serves as another rationale for strong security ties with the United States. Japan used its U.N. Security Council chairmanship in October to push through U.S.-backed economic sanctions against North Korea and instituted its own bilateral sanctions against the would-be claimant to nuclear status.
“Both are very good decisions,” Murata argued. “But I don’t think economic sanctions will work soon. It takes a long time to be effective. As time passes, the Japanese public might become more and more frustrated.” This frustration might translate into declining popularity for Abe, who currently enjoys as high as a 70 percent approval rate.
In the end, Murata maintained, Abe needs a strong U.S. alliance to face the “clear and present danger” of North Korea. Koizumi did not succeed in balancing this strong alliance with improved relations with the rest of Asia. Abe has signalled his commitment to this task.
Finding the proper balance will not be easy, however. “Will Japan stick with its alliance with the United States as a way to solve its security concerns?” asked Wu Xinbo. “Or will it be more open-minded and seek more cooperation with its neighbours and play a more positive role in building regional security mechanisms, which will be a very welcome gesture from a regional perspective? This issue deserves more debate in Japan.”