Year of the Rooster nothing to crow aboutTOKYO - As the Year of the Dog begins, Japan remains dogged by a host of foreign-policy challenges carried over from the Year of the Rooster.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi says he will step down in September when his current term as president of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) expires. In the meantime, his most important - and difficult - foreign-policy challenge will be to get Japan's relations with Asian neighbors, especially China and South Korea, back on track.
Japan has been locked in a diplomatic dogfight with the two Asian neighbors over Koizumi's repeated visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni war shrine, territorial disputes and other issues stemming from Japan's aggression before and during World War II.
How long will Japan continue to be at odds with China and South Korea? A thaw in the chilly relations with the two appears very unlikely at least until Koizumi leaves office.
Koizumi yet again defended his visits to the shrine during a nationally televised news conference on Wednesday marking the start of the new year. "I do not understand why foreign governments interfere with a spiritual issue and try to turn it into a diplomatic issue."
A leader has the right to express respect to a country's war dead, he said, reiterating that the Yasukuni visits merely show his resolve that Japan will never wage war again.
Koizumi has visited the shrine every year since taking office in April 2001. His last Yasukuni visit on October 17 provoked a fresh wave of angry responses from China and South Korea. Yasukuni enshrines 14 World War II Class A war criminals, including former prime minister General Hideki Tojo, along with 2.5 million other war dead.
The four leading candidates to succeed Koizumi as LDP president and prime minister - Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and former chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda - have differing views on the Yasukuni issue. Abe and Aso are hawks and steadfast backers of Koizumi's shrine visits, while Fukuda and Tanigaki are widely seen as being critical of or at least skeptical about them.
Japan's Asia strategy is expected to be a major issue in the race to succeed Koizumi, and who wins his support will determine the direction of Japan's relations with China and South Korea after he is gone.
Other major issues topping Japan's foreign-policy agenda for 2006 include making progress on North Korea's nuclear ambitions and its abduction of Japanese nationals, drawing up an exit strategy for Japanese troops deployed in Iraq, and finalizing a pact with the United States on the realignment of its forces stationed in Japan. In addition, Japan will continue to press strenuously for reform of the United Nations Security Council to pave the way for the country getting a permanent seat on the powerful body. Japan will also face the task of accelerating free-trade agreements (FTAs) with trading partners.
China and South Korea
Japan's relations with China and South Korea remain at their lowest point in decades because of rekindled territorial disputes, Tokyo's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and the controversy over Japanese school textbooks authored by right-wing scholars, as well as Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. In April, a wave of anti-Japan riots swept across China.
The shrine issue has resulted in the suspension the past four years of annual visits by Japanese and Chinese leaders to each other's capitals.
And during the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Busan, South Korea, in mid-November, Chinese President Hu Jintao refused to hold brief bilateral talks with Koizumi on the sidelines of the international meeting. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun agreed to brief talks with Koizumi on the fringes of the APEC summit in Busan, but did so only as a courtesy. Roh hosted the summit.
A similar scenario unfolded in mid-December at Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings. Koizumi chided Beijing and Seoul on Wednesday, saying they "should not close down dialogue just because of one problem".
Tokyo and Beijing are also locked in a simmering fracas over Chinese gas projects in the disputed waters in the East China Sea near the so-called median line, which was drawn by Japan but has not been recognized by China. The line is meant to separate the two countries' 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs). The disputed Senkaku Islands, or the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese, are on the Japanese side.
The LDP-led coalition plans this month to introduce a bill in the diet, or parliament, to create off-limits zones near structures set up for resource exploration and development in the Japanese EEZ. Trespassers would be punished with prison terms of up to one year and fines of 500,000 yen (US$4,300). The bill is aimed at supporting Teikoku Oil Co, which was granted concessions last summer to start experimental drilling in the East China Sea in an apparent bid to counter natural-gas exploration conducted nearby by China.
Another contentious issue relates to Japan's devastating setback in its bid for a long-coveted permanent Security Council seat last year. Many countries, led by the US and China, vehemently objected to a council-expansion proposal by the Japan, Germany, India and Brazil, known as the G-4, and the issue never got to a vote last autumn.
Meanwhile, the new year was ushered in with yet more bad news for Japan's ties with China and South Korea. Koizumi pledged when he met with Roh in June in Seoul to consider building a state-run, non-religious facility as an alternative to Yasukuni Shrine. But the Koizumi government opted not to earmark money for a study on such a facility in the new budget plan for fiscal 2006.
Also at the end of last month, there were news reports that an unnamed Japanese staff member for Japan's Shanghai consulate committed suicide in May 2004 after being blackmailed by a Chinese man to provide key intelligence. Japan has complained to China about the incident, while China has angrily denied the reports.
The US, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea have held several rounds of talks in Beijing since the summer of 2003 to defuse tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. The last round of talks was held in November, and no date has been set for the next session, though China and South Korea have said they hope the next session will be held this month. North Korea agreed in principle in September to dismantle its nuclear-weapons programs in return for security guarantees and energy aid. But there has been no progress since.
North Korea has threatened to boycott the six-way talks unless the US drops financial sanctions against it. Washington froze the assets of eight North Korean companies in September, accusing them of helping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It also acted against a Macau-based bank that is alleged to have helped North Korea launder drug money and counterfeit currency.
Although all countries participating in the six-way talks other than North Korea say they want a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and hope for an early settlement of the nuclear issues in the talks, there are sharp differences among them. While China, a primary Cold War ally of North Korea, and South Korea insist on settling the dispute peacefully through dialogue, the US and Japan stress the need for a combination of dialogue and pressure in dealing with the Stalinist state.
Aside from nuclear issues, Japan has yet to resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents. Koizumi made two whirlwind trips to Pyongyang, first in September 2002 and again in May 2004. During his first summit with Koizumi, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il admitted that agents of his country had abducted some Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s.
Pyongyang continues to insist that of the 13 Japanese it abducted, eight later died. But it has failed to provide convincing proof of the deaths. Japan suspects some of the eight may still be alive. The other five abductees were allowed to return to Japan shortly after the first Koizumi-Kim summit. Japan formally recognizes 16 Japanese nationals, including the five returnees, as having been abducted by North Korea. Tokyo's basic policy is that Pyongyang will not be offered aid or normal diplomatic relations until the abduction issue is resolved. The Japanese government has been seeking concrete information on the abductees and demanding that any surviving abductees be repatriated.
Senior government officials of Japan and North Korea met at Christmas in Beijing and agreed to resume talks on normalizing diplomatic ties. They agreed to establish three parallel working groups to address separately the issues of normalizing diplomatic ties, abduction and security. The three working groups are to meet late this month. But prospects for a resolution of the abduction issue remain gloomy.
In addition to information on the abductees and repatriation of any surviving abductees, Japan demanded in the senior officials' meeting that North Korea extradite perpetrators. Recent news reports said two North Korean agents have been identified as being responsible for abducting two couples who have since been repatriated.
Among the four potential candidates to take over the LDP presidency and premiership from Koizumi in September, Abe is known to favor a tougher approach than Koizumi toward Pyongyang, including sanctions, while Fukuda is seen as favoring "dialogue" rather than "pressure" as does Koizumi. It is widely believed that Koizumi has a strong desire to lay the groundwork for normalization of ties with North Korea before standing down in September. News reports say Pyongyang, apparently concerned about the post-Koizumi Japanese policy, has also informally conveyed to Tokyo its readiness to accept another visit by the prime minister.
SDF mission in Iraq
On December 8, the Japanese government, one of US President George W Bush's staunchest allies, extended for another year the mission of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) deployed in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah as part of the US-led coalition there, prolonging Tokyo's largest military mission since World War II.
Although the SDF mission in Iraq is quite unpopular among the Japanese public, the Koizumi government since early 2004 has stationed about 600 non-combat troops in Samawah on a humanitarian and reconstruction mission, such as repairing schools and purifying water. The mission extension does not require the SDF troops to remain in Iraq for another full year, however. The Koizumi government is exploring ways for the SDF troops to exit Iraq in hopes of shifting Japan's role there to providing economic aid.
Tokyo is considering withdrawing troops around the middle of this year as British and Australian soldiers in charge of security in and around Samawah and protecting SDF personnel are also looking at pulling out of southern Iraq around May. Koizumi is believed to be inclined to complete the withdrawal of SDF troops before he steps down in September, although he has stopped short of referring to any specific target date.
Japan and the United States are expected to finalize a pact in March on the realignment of US forces stationed on Japanese soil. The two allies signed an interim pact at the end of October after striking a deal on the long-running dispute over the relocation of a key US air station in the southern Japanese island prefecture of Okinawa. The Bush administration is reviewing the role of the US bases in Japan as part of its military's worldwide "transformation". The US bases some 47,000 troops in Japan, and residents in Okinawa prefecture - where most of the troops are based - have long complained of crime, crowding and noise linked to the military.
It remains uncertain whether the relocation plan for Futenma Air Station will proceed smoothly. Most local citizens oppose the relocation plan, and the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly also adopted a statement in mid-December opposing it, stepping up pressure on the Koizumi government.
Japanese government officials fear that if the new relocation plan were to fall apart, the Japan-US security alliance would suffer a serious setback.
Meanwhile, the ruling LDP is moving toward revision of the post-World War II pacifist constitution. The LDP has already unveiled its draft of a new constitution that would clear the way for the nation to play a greater role in international security affairs and boost joint operations with the US. The LDP-led coalition and the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan have already agreed to introduce legislation this month setting procedures for a national referendum on a new constitution. The Koizumi government is also preparing to submit to the upcoming diet session an amendment to the SDF Law to enshrine international peace cooperation activities as another primary mission of the Japanese troops, as called for in the new National Defense Program Outline adopted at the end of 2004. Currently, the SDF's primary mission is limited to defending the country from aggression and keeping public order.
Japan-US relations are now as good as they have ever been, backed by a personal friendship between Koizumi and Bush. In his news conference on Wednesday, Koizumi reaffirmed his belief that Tokyo's defense relations with Washington are more critical than its ties with other nations. "The United States is the only nation in the world that sees an attack on Japan as an attack on itself," he said. It remains to be seen whether Koizumi's successor will be able to keep ties as strong and friendly.
Free trade agreements
Japan concluded its first FTA, with Singapore, in 2002. It has since signed FTAs with Mexico and Malaysia. Japan has also reached basic agreements in FTA negotiations with the Philippines and Thailand and is negotiating FTAs with South Korea, Indonesia and the 10-member ASEAN. Japan and Chile agreed in November to open FTA negotiations. FTA negotiations between Japan and India are also expected to start late this year or next.
But Japan has a lot to do if it is to march in step in the ever-intensifying global and regional FTA competition. For instance, the target date of the end of 2005 for Japan and South Korea to conclude FTA negotiations has passed. The Japan-South Korean negotiations have stalled for the past year because of sharp differences over farm trade and also fractured political ties. FTA negotiations between Japan and ASEAN, launched in the spring of 2005, have also failed to make significant headway.
Kicking off FTA negotiations with India - and possibly with Australia - within the next couple of years would be Japan's way of countering the influence of China, the world's most populous country and a rapidly ascending economic as well as military power.
In a fresh sign of how Japan has begun to place particular importance on ties with India as a counterbalance to the unmatched overall power of China in the region, Foreign Minister Aso made a two-day visit to the world's largest democracy this week. In late April, Koizumi also visited India. Koizumi's Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh is expected to visit Tokyo this summer.
Aso also plans to visit Australia this month.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected].