Use pact with U.S. as linchpin to improve ties with neighbors
A little more than three years of administration by the Democratic Party of Japan has knocked Japan's diplomacy into a serious tailspin. How can it get back on course?
This is a task of great importance that the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must address with everything in its power.
Abe is scheduled to make a trip to the United States as early as January to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama. The prime minister's visit to Washington appears in line with Abe's belief that strengthening the alliance between Japan and the United States should be the first step toward reconstructing relations with its neighbors, such as China and South Korea.
Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama threw the issue of relocating functions of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture off course, causing confusion and disruption in Japan-U.S. ties.
As though availing themselves of the mix-up, China, South Korea and Russia have each tried to knock Japan off balance over territorial problems.
Such is the common perception among people concerned with diplomatic issues regarding Japan's foreign policy situation.
Create a road map for security
The problem is how to hammer out and implement specific measures for beefing up the Japan-U.S. alliance.
In its platform for the latest House of Representatives election, the Liberal Democratic Party incorporated such pledges as enabling Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense and again revising the Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation Guidelines.
Both are tasks of key significance that the Abe administration must accomplish. Setting an order of priority for steadily tackling them will help to resolidify the Tokyo-Washington alliance.
Expansion of the defense budget, which has been shrinking for 10 consecutive years, is a matter of urgency. The Abe Cabinet should take this into account in compiling a state budget for fiscal 2013.
Regarding the planned defense guideline revision for bolstering cooperation between the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military, bilateral consultations should be started at an early date to jointly study specifics.
Under the divided Diet, in which the ruling coalition controls the lower house but lacks a majority in the House of Councillors, it will be hard for the government to pass the set of bills Abe envisions to create a Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council.
However, given that the opposition DPJ also has an idea similar to Abe's, the government would be well advised to call for joint consultations on the matter between the ruling and opposition blocs.
But when it comes to solving the collective self-defense right issue, it will be difficult to bridge the gaps in views between the LDP, its coalition partner New Komeito and the Cabinet Legislation Bureau. It would be realistic for the government to place priority first on deepening discussions within the ruling camp by setting a goal of accomplishing the task after next summer's upper house election.
When Abe visits the United States, the issue of Japan's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact will certainly be high on the agenda. To ensure Japan's national interests are not marred, the government must be determined to take part in the TPP talks as early as possible.
The Futenma problem, which has remained stalled for many years, is now heading into a crucial stretch.
Construction of an alternative facility for the Futenma Air Station can never be undertaken without permission from Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima for land reclamation required for the project.
It is of especially high importance for the government to obtain understanding from a wider range of local people to create an environment in which it would be easier for Nakaima--who has been calling for Futenma's "relocation outside our prefecture"--to change his mind in favor of relocating it within the prefecture.
Relations between Japan and China have been tense ever since the government decision in September to nationalize some of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
An abnormal situation ensued, with Chinese government surveillance ships sailing in waters close to the Senkakus day after day.
Seek mutual benefit with China
Of course, Japan should not make any concession to China on its territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands. Even so, it would be seriously detrimental to the interests of both sides if the entire bilateral relationship is kept in a stalemate by this issue alone.
When Abe visited China six years ago, he succeeded in reaching an agreement with China to build a "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests" by refraining from making a definitive statement on whether he had visited or would visit Yasukuni Shrine. There must be a way to achieve a breakthrough even on diplomatic issues that are difficult to solve, if they are included as part of a wider scope of negotiations.
This time, for instance, the government could make the Senkaku issue a subject for continued discussion, while it seeks a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests. Through such an approach to negotiations, Japan can aim at reaching a comprehensive agreement with the Xi Jinping administration. The Japanese government must mobilize all of its wisdom to do so.
For that purpose, it would be realistic for the government to shelve for the time being hard-line measures such as the "permanent stationing of government officials" on the Senkaku Islands, raised by the LDP in its list of policy measures to be studied.
"Assertive diplomacy," the slogan Abe raised on dealing with issues including territorial problems, is far better than "unassertive diplomacy." However, it will be meaningless if making assertions becomes an end unto itself.
What the new administration should aim at is a "diplomacy that produces achievements" through both hard and soft measures, sometimes seeking ways to solve problems in a levelheaded manner.
The government must also hasten improvements of relations with South Korea.
The change in administration from President Lee Myung Bak, who defiantly set foot on the Takeshima islands, which are Japanese territory, to Park Geun Hye is a good chance to improve bilateral ties. We think it is quite appropriate that Abe is thinking about sending a special envoy to Park.
To effectively face North Korea, which has been continuing its nuclear weapons development program, and China, which has been pursuing the road to military superpower status, close cooperation with South Korea, in addition to the United States, is indispensable.