Japan's 2006 diplomacy

Posted in Japan | 08-Jan-06 | Author: Hisane Masaki

A closer look at Japan's neighbourhood.
A closer look at Japan's neighbourhood.
As 2006, the year of the Dog, has just started, Japan remains dogged by a host of foreign-policy challenges carried over from the old year of the Rooster.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has vowed that he will step down in September when his current term as president of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) expires. The most important – and intractable – 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 the war-related Yasukuni Shrine, territorial disputes and other issues stemming from Japan’s aggression before and during World War II.

How long will Japan lead a cat-and-dog life with China and South Korea? At least until Koizumi leaves office, a thaw in the bitingly cold ties appears very unlikely. Koizumi again defended his visits to the shrine on Jan.4. In a nationally televised news conference marking the start of the new year, Koizumi said,”I do not understand why foreign governments interfere with a spiritual issue and try to turn it into a diplomatic issue.” He said that a leader has the right to express respect to a country's war dead and reiterated that the Yasukuni visits merely show his resolve to never wage war again. Later in the day, the prime minister visited Ise Shrine, another Shinto shrine in Mie Prefecture, western Japan, as successive Japanese leaders have customarily done at the beginning of a year.

There are 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; former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda. The four have differing views on the Yasukuni and other issues. Japan’s Asia strategy is expected to be a major issue in the succession race, and who wins his laurels will determine the direction of Japan’s relations with China and South Korea in the post-Koizumi era.

Among the other major things topping Japan’s foreign-policy agenda for 2006 are to make progress on the issues of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and its abduction of Japanese nationals, draw up an exit strategy for Japanese troops deployed in Iraq and finalize a pact with the United States on the realignment of American forces stationed in Japan. In addition, Japan will continue to strenuously press for reform of the United Nations Security Council to pave the way for its permanent seat on the powerful council. Japan will also face the tasks of accelerating free trade agreements, or FTAs, with trading partners and contributing to a successful conclusion to the current round of global trade liberalization negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Without a crystal ball, it is impossible to predict exactly how these Japanese foreign-policy challenges will play out. Nevertheless, here is a bird’s-eye view of Japan’s diplomatic landscape for the new year.

China and South Korea

Japan's relations with China and South Korea remain at their lowest points in decades because of rekindled territorial disputes, Tokyo's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and the controversy over Japanese school textbooks authored by rightwing scholars, as well as Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine. In April last year, a wave of anti-Japan riots swept across China. Koizumi has visited the shrine every year since taking office in April 2001. Koizumi’s last Yasukuni visit on Oct.17 provoked a fresh wave of angry responses from China and South Korea. The shrine enshrines 14 World War II Class-A war criminals, including former Prime Minister Gen.Hideki Tojo, along with the country's 2.5 million war dead.

Although Japanese and Chinese leaders are supposed to visit each other’s capitals alternately every year, any such mutual visits have not taken place in more than four years due to the diplomatic imbroglio over the shrine issue. During the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Busan, South Korea in mid-November, Chinese President Hu Jintao refused to even hold brief bilateral talks with Koizumi on the sidelines of the international powwow. Hu and Koizumi held such bilateral talks during the previous APEC summit in Santiago, Chile in 2004.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun did agree to hold brief bilateral talks with Koizumi on the fringes of the APEC summit in Busan, but he did so only as a courtesy. Roh hosted the APEC summit. The atmosphere of the Koizumi-Roh meeting was somber as the Korean leader strongly protested the Yasukuni visits by the prime minister and other lawmakers as "a challenge" to South Korea. Roh’s Japan visit, originally planned for late December, was put off indefinitely. Summit meetings between Japan and South Korea had been customarily held once every six months starting in 2004. Ironically, although Japan and South Korea have designated 2005 as the “year of friendship” to mark the 40th anniversary of normalizing ties in 1965, 2005 will very likely go down in history as the year of unfriendliness.

In mid-December, the so-called ASEAN plus Three nations held an annual summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, immediately followed by the first East Asian Summit, which also included Australia, New Zealand and India. The ASEAN plus Three groups the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China and South Korea. Japan, China and South Korea had held trilateral talks on the sidelines of the annual ASEAN plus Three summit in recent years, but no such talks were held. Earlier during a meeting in Seoul in mid-November, Chinese President Hu and South Korean President Roh forged a united front and indirectly called on Koizumi to stop visiting Yasukuni Shrine, claiming that the history issues should never have a negative effect on cooperation and development of Northeast Asia.

Koizumi at his press conference on Jan 4, 2006: "I have never tried to close dialogue with China and South…
Koizumi at his press conference on Jan 4, 2006: "I have never tried to close dialogue with China and South Korea".
Many analysts believe there is no chance of turning around the situation, at least until after Koizumi leaves office in September. Speculation is swirling in Japanese political circles that this year Koizumi may visit Yasukuni Shrine on Aug.15 – the most high-profile anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II – for the first time as premier. When he took office in the spring of 2001, Koizumi vowed publicly to visit the shrine on that day, but eschewed doing so in anticipation of a barrage of criticism at home as well as abroad.

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, or EEZs. The disputed Senkaku Islands, or the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese, are located on the Japanese side of the median.

In a move aimed at providing a legal basis for protecting Japan’s test-drilling activities in the East China Sea, a LDP panel compiled a bill in December to protect vessels used by marine resource explorers and fishermen in Japan's EEZ. The bill, to be submitted to the ordinary session of the Diet, or parliament, which just convened this month, stipulates that the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry may create off-limits zones near structures set up for resource exploration and development in the EEZ. Trespassers would be punished with prison terms of up to one year and fines worth 500,000 yen. The legislation is thought to be aimed at supporting Teikoku Oil Co., which was formally 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 a Chinese consortium.

The new year was ushered in with yet another bad news for Japan’s ties with China and South Korea. When they met in Seoul in June, Koizumi pledged to Roh to consider building a state-run, nonreligious 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, which was approved in late December. Also at the end of that month, there were news reports that an unnamed Japanese diplomat committed suicide in May 2004 after being blackmailed by a Chinese man to provide key intelligence. The Japanese consular for Japan's Shanghai consulate left suicide notes saying he had been threatened by a Chinese man over his relationship with a karaoke hostess, the reports said. Japan has complained to China about the incident and sought clarification of it, while China angrily denied the reports and described the allegations as "groundless".

In his Jan.4 press conference, Koizumi said it is up to Beijing and Seoul to resume top-level contacts with Japan. “I have never tried to close dialogue with China and South Korea. The door remains open,” he said. “Every nation has differences of opinion with others, and we should not close down dialogue just because of one problem.”

Among the four leading candidates to succeed Koizumi in September, Abe and Aso are hawks and steadfast backers of Koizumi's visits, while Fukuda and Tanigaki are widely seen as being critical of, or at least skeptical, about the visits. Beijing has seen the Yasukuni issue as the biggest obstacle to mended ties. So if either Fukuda or Tanigaki takes the helm of the LDP and government, long-suspended mutual visits by top leaders to each other’s capitals are very likely to resume. If either Abe or Aso wins the succession race, the first thing he will have to do if he wants to nurse ties with Beijing and Seoul back to health is to vow publicly never to visit Yasukuni Shrine while in office against his wishes.

North Korea

The U.S., 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 nuclear talks was held in November, and no date has been set for the next session, although China and South Korea have said they hope the next session will be held by the end of January. The North 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 then.

North Korea has threatened to boycott the six-way talks unless the U.S. 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. The North has been demanding direct talks with the US about the sanctions, but the two sides have failed to agree on the conditions for a meeting. In unusually harsh remarks that infuriated North Korea, Alexander Vershbow, the new US ambassador to South Korea, branded North Korea a “criminal regime” involved in arms sales, drug trafficking and currency forgery recently.

Although all countries participating in the six-way talks other than North Korea say they want a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and that they 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 U.S. and Japan stress the need for the combination of dialogue and pressure in dealing with the Stalinist state. North Korea stunned Japan by test-firing a missile over Japan into the Pacific in 1998.

Yasukuni Shrine - the bone of contention.
Yasukuni Shrine - the bone of contention.
Aside from nuclear issues, Japan has yet to resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents. Prime Minister 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 North Korean agents 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 these deaths. Japan suspects that 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. Now Japan formally recognizes 16 Japanese nationals, including the five returnees, as having been abducted by North Korea. Tokyo's basic policy is that North Korea will not be offered aid or normal diplomatic relations until the abduction issue is resolved. The government has been seeking concrete information on the abductees and demanding that any surviving abductees be repatriated.

Calls for sanctions against Pyongyang among the Japanese people have been further fueled by the case of Megumi Yokota, one of the eight abductees whom Pyongyang claims already died. North Korea handed a Japanese delegation what it claimed were the remains of Yokota in November 2004, but Japanese DNA analysis found that they are not Yokota's. She was a 13-year-old junior high school girl when kidnapped in 1977. The findings that Pyongyang handed over someone else's ashes stirred an outcry in Japan.

In mid-December, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution criticizing and expressing serious concern over North Korea's human rights situation, including abductions of foreigners. It was the first time that the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution specifically citing North Korea’s human rights violations. The resolution, drafted by the EU and cosponsored by Japan, the U.S. and other countries, was passed by a vote of 88 to 21, with 60 abstentions. China and Russia voted against the resolution and South Korea abstained from voting.

Senior government officials of Japan and North Korea met on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Beijing and agreed to resume talks on normalizing diplomatic ties. They agreed to establish three parallel working groups to separately address the issues of normalizing diplomatic ties, abduction and security. The three working groups are to meet as early as late January. But prospects for a resolution of the abduction issue remain gloomy. During the Beijing talks, the North Korean delegation told the Japanese side that Pyongyang would make "sincere efforts" and take "concrete steps." However, North Korea refused throughout the talks to concede that the issue remains unresolved, as Japan maintains. Many analysts say that Pyongyang has reversed its earlier refusal to talk with Tokyo about the abduction issue in hopes of seeing Japan play the role of mediator in the standoff between Pyongyang and Washington.

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 that two North Korean agents have been identified as the perpetrators responsible for abducting two couples who have since been repatriated to Japan. Sin Gwang Su, who has been on an international wanted list for the 1980 abduction of Tadaaki Hara, was found to have kidnapped Yasushi Chimura and his wife, Fukie, both 50, in 1978. Sin has also been identified as the perpetrator of Yokota’s abduction. Another North Korean agent, for whom the Metropolitan Police Department issued a fugitive warrant in 1985, also was found to have been responsible for the abduction of Kaoru Hasuike, 48, and his wife, Yukiko, 49. Police authorities reportedly are investigating the cases further to obtain arrest warrants for the two agents through Interpol.

North Korea slammed Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe for saying resolution of the North's past abductions of Japanese nationals is necessary before diplomatic relations can be normalized. “What is most essential for settling the issues related to the DPRK-Japan relations is not the 'abduction issue' but the issue of Japan's liquidation of its past crimes,” the official Minju Joson newspaper said in a commentary carried by the Korean Central News Agency. “The present hostile relations between the DPRK and Japan originated from Japan's crime-woven past and these bilateral relations have not yet improved chiefly because Japan has not redressed its crimes," the commentary said. DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name.

2002 summit between Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il
2002 summit between Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il
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” like Koizumi. It is widely believed that Koizumi has a strong desire to prepare the ground for normalization of ties with North Korea before standing down in September. News reports say that 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 Dec.15, Iraqi parliamentary elections were held. All the religious and ethnic groups in the country, including Sunni Arabs who boycotted the election for the provisional Iraqi National Assembly in January 2005, participated in the election. Every group in Iraq has engaged in the political process for the first time, raising hopes for an improvement in the country’s security in the future because most of the militants in Iraq are believed to be Sunnis.

Earlier on Dec.8, the government of Prime Minister Koizumi, one of U.S. President George W. Bush’s staunchest allies, extended for another year the mission of Self-Defense Forces (SDF) troops deployed in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah as part of the U.S.-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 has stationed about 600 non-combat SDF troops in Samawah on a humanitarian and reconstruction mission, such as repairing schools and purifying water, since early 2004.

The mission extension does not require the SDF troops to remain in Iraq for another full year, however. Indeed, the Koizumi government is exploring ways for the SDF troops to exit Iraq in hopes of shifting Japan’s role there to the provision of official development assistance, or ODA. In the autumn of 2003, Japan pledged a total of $5 billion worth of aid – $3.5 billion in low-interest yen loans and $1.5 billion in grants-in-aid – for Iraq over a four-year period ending in 2007. Yen Loans have yet to begin to flow into Iraq for infrastructure projects.

In a speech in late November, U.S. President Bush indicated a course for the reduction and withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Tokyo is considering withdrawing SDF 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. Out of political consideration to the Bush administration, Britain and Australia have stopped short of declaring their intent to exit Iraq.

In early December, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he may extend the deployment of Australian troops in Iraq beyond May, adding to uncertainty over the SDF mission. Japan apparently does not want to be the first of the three closest U.S. allies to announce a troop withdrawal. It also remains to be seen if Japan will be able to pull its troops out of Iraq at its desired timing with full consent of the U.S., which fears a possible domino effect of other allies following suit. The government is considering keeping SDF’ air force personnel stationed in Kuwait even after the ground troops’ pullout to continue ferrying supplies for U.S. and other coalition forces. The air force activities might be expanded to include those beyond southern Iraq.

Futenma US Air base on Okinawa.
Futenma US Air base on Okinawa.
Japan-U.S. relations

Japan and the U.S. are expected to finalize a pact on the realignment of American forces stationed on Japanese soil in March. 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 American air station in the southern Japanese island state of Okinawa.

The Bush administration is reviewing the role of the American bases in Japan as part of its military’s worldwide “transformation.” Japan and the U.S. have also been discussing the division of roles and missions between the U.S. military and SDF. The U.S. expects Japan to play the role of strategic hub to ensure stability in an “arc of instability” stretching from Northeast Asia to the Middle East via Southeast Asia and South Asia. The arc of instability is so wide an area that the Bush administration is trying to turn the U.S. forces into leaner and more flexible and mobile ones to be able to respond to crises there rapidly and effectively. But the repositioning in Japan is also meant to ease tensions caused by the U.S. military presence. The U.S. 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. Okinawa is about 1,600 kilometers southwest of Tokyo.

It remains uncertain whether the relocation plan for Futenma Air Station will proceed smoothly. The two countries agreed in 1996 that the U.S. would return the land of the Futenma base to Japan 'within five to seven years' on condition that its heliport operations would be relocated within Okinawa Prefecture. The Japanese government decided at the end of 1999 to relocate the base to the waters off the Henoko district of Nago City in Okinawa Prefecture. But this original relocation plan ran aground due to fierce opposition from local citizens.

In the interim pact signed in October, the U.S. agreed on Japan’s proposal for the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Ginowan City, southern Okinawa Prefecture to the coastline area of Camp Schwab in Nago City. Japan's proposal features the use of part of existing land at the U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Schwab in Nago. Most local citizens are dead-set against the new relocation plan as well. The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly adopted a statement in mid-December opposing the new plan, stepping up pressure on the Koizumi government.

Japanese government officials fear that if the new relocation plan falls apart as the old one did, the Japan-U.S. security alliance would suffer a serious setback. The Koizumi government is leaning toward a carrot-and-stick approach to Okinawa. In a bid to win local support for the new Futenma relocation plan, Koizumi’s ruling coalition with New Komeito party plans to draw up a development plan for the northern part of Okinawa where Nago City is located. At the same time the Koizumi government is considering special legislation to transfer power for using public waters from the prefectural governor to the national government to ensure the smooth implementation of the Japan-U.S. pact. Present law stipulates that any organization seeking to fill in public waters at sea or in rivers and lakes must receive permission from the prefectural governor.

The first test of the relocation plan came with a mayoral election in Nago. In the Jan.22 vote, two of three candidates were adamant opponents of relocating the Futenma base inside Okinawa and one candidate was seen as easier to win over because he has so far objected to the relocation plan in its current form. In December, Okinawa gubernatorial elections will be held. Incumbent Gov. Keiichi Inamine, a conservative, won the last gubernatorial election by pledging to promote dialogue with the national government and take a realistic approach to the U.S. military presence. He accepted the original relocation plan on condition that it accommodate joint military-civilian use and that military use end after 15 years. But he has rejected the new one. He has not yet made it clear whether he will run for another term in the December vote.

Meanwhile, the ruling LDP is moving toward revision of the post-World War II, pacifist constitution. The LDP 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 U.S. The LDP-led coalition and the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan have already agreed to introduce legislation setting procedures for a national referendum on a new constitution to the current ordinary Diet session.

Koizumi and China’s prime minister at the first East Asia Summit in December.
Koizumi and China’s prime minister at the first East Asia Summit in December.
The Koizumi government is also preparing to submit to the current 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. Due to the politically sensitive nature of the SDF, the Defense Agency, which oversees the SDF, has been granted lower legal status than government ministries. The Japanese government is also poised to introduce a bill to revise the Defense Agency Law to upgrade the agency to a ministry.

On the economic front, Japan’s lifting in December of a ban on beef imports from the U.S., imposed two years earlier following the discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in Washington State, raised expectations that the only thorny issue in otherwise serene bilateral relations would be resolved. But the expectations were betrayed only several weeks later.

The Japanese government announced on Jan.20 that it will re-impose a total ban on US beef imports after a shipment contained carcass parts that could have posed a risk of BSE (mad cow disease). The U.S. admitted its system for inspecting beef bound for Japan is flawed as it did not detect an animal spine, which is banned by Tokyo because of the risk of mad cow disease, in a shipment, and said it will conduct a thorough investigation and employ stricter inspection measures.

Prime Minister Koizumi said that he "received the agriculture minister's report over the telephone with his recommendation that the imports be halted and I think it is a good idea". "This is a pity, given that imports had just resumed," he added.

Before the import ban was re-imposed on Jan.20, only imports of beef from cattle aged 20 months or younger were permitted on condition that all contamination-prone parts, like brains and spinal cord, be removed. Cows that can be certified as under 20 months are estimated to account for less than 10 percent of all cows slaughtered in the U.S. for human consumption. It remains to be seen how soon the American beef imports will be resumed after the latest incident. Even after the imports are resumed again, pressure for an easing of the import conditions is expected to mount in the U.S. in the run-up to the mid-term Congressional elections in autumn. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Johanns already announced earlier that he would ask Japan to raise the age limit of the cows to 30 months. Before the import ban was imposed at the end of 2003, Japan was the largest overseas market for U.S. beef, buying more than 1 billion U.S. dollars worth in 2003.

The state of Japan-U.S. relations is now one of the best in history, backed by a personal friendship between Koizumi and Bush. Their chemistry seems really good. In his Jan.4 press conference, 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. However, he denied he was suggesting that Japan's relations with the U.S. are the only ones that matter. It remains to be seen whether a successor to Koizumi will be able to keep ties between Japan and the U.S. as strong and friendly as they are now.

UNSC reform

Japan suffered a significant setback in its bid to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council last year. The Group of Four (G-4) countries – Japan, Germany, India and Brazil – submitted to the U.N. Secretariat a resolution to expand the UNSC, thus paving the way for Japan and a few other countries to obtain permanent council membership. Many countries, led by the U.S. and China, which are permanent council members along with Russia, Britain and France, vehemently objected to the council expansion proposed by the G-4. China launched a fierce diplomatic campaign of rallying opposition to the G-4 resolution, especially among Asian and African countries.

After realizing that they did not have enough support for their resolution among the some 190 U.N. members, the G-4 countries approached the 53-nation African Union (AU), which had a council expansion resolution of its own, in hopes of hashing out a unified resolution to expand the UNSC, to no avail. Both the G-4 and AU resolutions were quashed without being put to a vote during the previous U.N. General Assembly session ended in mid-September, dealing a devastating setback to Japan’s UNSC bid. Japan has since been seeking to work out a new resolution able to garner U.S. support while maintaining the four-country framework. The U.S., a close ally of Japan, supports Tokyo's bid for permanent council membership.

Asian leaders at the first East Asian Summit in December 2005.
Asian leaders at the first East Asian Summit in December 2005.
To be sure, Japan, which now serves a two-year term as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council since January last year, is not unhappy with the current post, which it has held eight times before, the most among U.N. members. But what the country really wants is permanent council membership, which it regards as due status commensurate with its U.N. budget contributions.

Japan is the second largest contributor to the U.N. budget after the U.S., shouldering nearly 20 percent, a percentage higher than that of the combined financial contributions of the other four permanent council members. Any change in the makeup of the UNSC would require revisions to the U.N. Charter, a difficult process that can be realized only after getting the green light from a two-thirds majority of about 190 U.N. member countries. It would also have to get approval by the veto-wielding five permanent members.

Debate on reform of the council, launched in the early 1990s, came to a head in the early autumn of 2005 when the U.N. commemorated its 60th anniversary with a special summit of U.N. member countries. 2006 marks the 50th anniversary of Japan's admission to the world body. Of the 15 council members, five are permanent members with veto power – the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China. The remaining 10 seats are held by nonpermanent members and allotted regionally.

After the G-4’s council reform proposal fell apart, Japan began to shift the focus of its strategy for gaining a permanent UNSC seat away from partnership with the other G-4 countries and to that with the U.S. In the most visible sign of new partnership with the U.S., Japan cosponsored the U.S.-led proposal for reform of the U.N. management along with the Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Largely incorporating the proposal, the U.N. averted a budget crisis in late December with an agreement on a budget for 2006, with a $950m spending cap for the first six months, aimed at applying pressure for major reform. Funding for the second half of 2006 will be released if U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan concludes that enough reforms have been adopted. Wealthy and developing nations had been at odds over the budget.

In the clearest sign to date of a schism between Japan and its G-4 partners, the G-4 nations other than Japan resubmitted a resolution calling for council expansion – similar to the one killed in the previous U.N. General Assembly session – to the U.N. Secretariat on Jan.5. A senior official from the Japanese mission to the U.N. said Japan aims to study what to do while weighing the development of its discussions with the U.S. on U.N. reform.

Meanwhile, frustrated by the dampened hopes of gaining permanent UNSC membership, Japan is now using its trump card. It is demanding a cut in its U.N. budget contributions and increases in such contributions by China and Russia. Each country’s new share of the U.N. budget for three years from 2007 will be decided this year.


The year 2006 will be a crucial one for the global trading system. The WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong in December made only modest progress towards the goal of expansion of free trade. Trade ministers from 149 countries failed to strike a deal on a framework for further liberalizing trade in goods and services. Instead they pledged to work out such a deal by the end of April in hopes of meeting the end-2006 target deadline.

When the current Doha round of WTO negotiations was launched in November 2001 at the WTO ministerial meeting in Doha, Katar, January 2005 was set as the target date for its conclusion. But the ministerial meeting, held in Cancun, Mexico in September 2003, collapsed due to sharp differences, and the target date was pushed back until the end of 2006. The target arises because the US president will lose his "fast-track" negotiating authority to ease passage of any trade deal through Congress in July 2007.

The biggest sticking point in the Doha round is agriculture. The WTO members remain sharply split over how much barriers to the freer cross-border movement of farm produce, such as national subsidies for domestic farmers, export subsidies and high import tariffs, should be eliminated, especially in richer industrialized members. This question has also pitted industrialized WTO members, including the U.S., the European Union (EU) and Japan, against each other.

Japan is expected to come under stronger pressure to liberalize its heavily protected agricultural markets. While being on the offensive in the negotiations on liberalizing trade in non-farm products such as automobiles and electronics, Japan is on the defensive on agricultural trade. It is vehemently resisting a proposal supported by many WTO members for setting a ceiling on the import tariffs for farm products because it wants to keep those tariffs, especially for rice, as high as possible to shield weak and uncompetitive domestic farmers from a flood of cheaper imports. For Japan, rice is the most politically sensitive item, and its growers are heavily protected by a whopping tariff of about 780 percent slapped on imported rice.

Meanwhile, as the WTO trade talks falter, countries all over the world are pursuing their own separate free trade agreements, or FTAs, with trading partners. Bilateral or regional integrations, especially in the form of FTAs, have popped up all over the world since the early 1990s. They include the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the EU and Mercosur. In East Asia, too, many countries are now competing for FTAs with trading partners in and outside the region.

Japan joined the FTA competition, concluding its first FTA, with Singapore, in 2002. It singed its second FTA, with Mexico, in 2004, and third one, with Malaysia, in December last year. 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 as a whole. Japan and Chile agreed in November last year 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. Japan has yet to sign FTAs with Thailand and the Philippines. The end-2005 target date for Japan and South Korea to conclude FTA negotiations has passed. The Japan-South Korean negotiations have stalled for the past year due to sharp differences over farm trade and also due to chilly political ties. FTA negotiations between Japan and the entire ASEAN, launched in the spring of 2005, have 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 efforts to counter the influence of China, the world’s most populous country and rapidly ascending economic as well as military power, in a proposed East Asian community (EAC), one of the main issues discussed at the first East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in mid-December. Japan has strongly advocated the inclusion of India as well as Australia and New Zealand in the proposed EAC, the idea opposed by China and some other Asian nations. 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 early this month. In late April last year, Koizumi also visited India. Koizumi’s Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh is expected to visit Tokyo in summer. After visiting India, Aso also planned to visit Australia early this month for the first security dialogue among Japanese, U.S. and Australian foreign ministers, scheduled for Jan.11. But he put off the visit to Australia because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided not to go to Australia after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon succumbed to an illness. Japan, the U.S. and Australia are expected to hold the security dialogue in March. The tug-of-war over the leadership role in the proposed EAC is widely expected to intensify between Tokyo and Beijing this year.