17 Oct 2008
Trimming a hawk's wings
Outspoken Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso holds his tongue as Washington informs him at the 11th hour of its decision to remove North Korea from its list of terrorism-sponsoring states, Axel Berkofsky writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Axel Berkofsky for ISN Security Watch
Newly elected Japanese Prime Taro Aso is not happy.
Much to the dismay of Mr Aso, who took office on 24 September, Washington late last week took North Korea off its list of terrorism-sponsoring states in return for Pyongyang's promise to resume disabling its nuclear facilities and allowing international monitors access to its nuclear sites.
North Korea's delisting took place without prior consultations with Tokyo, which regarded Washington's designation of North Korea as a terrorism-sponsoring state as an important symbol of joint policy approach towards Pyongyang.
Prime Minister Aso received a phone call from US President George W Bush only half an hour before officially announcing the delisting. In fact, Bush might not even have called at all if it were not for the urging of US Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer. The 10-minute telephone Aso-conversation was reportedly set up at short notice by the US ambassador, who (apparently unlike his boss in Washington) found it appropriate to inform Tokyo on a fundamental change on the US North Korea policy agenda in advance.
The usually outspoken and rhetorical sound-bite-prone Japanese prime minister bit his tongue for a change and tried to sound nonchalant. Taking North Korea off the US terror list, he said, does not prevent Japan from seeking to solve the so-called abduction issue - an issue very much on top of Tokyo's North Korea agenda ever since Pyongyang officially admitted in 2002 to having kidnapped Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s (up to 100, Tokyo claims) to "employ" them as Japanese language "instructors" for North Korea's secret service.
"We will be able to hold sufficient discussions on the abductions in the process of negotiations to come. The delisting does not mean a loss of leverage," the Japan Times reported quoted Aso as saying on Monday.
Analysts, however, widely agree that it very much does mean a loss of leverage, fearing that North Korea's delisting represents the de facto end of joint US-Japanese policies towards Pyongyang.
"Aso is hard-line on North Korea. We saw that when he was foreign minister and seeing it now as prime minister," Christopher W Hughes, professor of International Politics and Japanese Studies at the University of Warwick, UK, told ISN Security Watch. "He has put a brave face on the latest US-North Korea deal and will have to acquiesce to a large degree, but clearly he does not like the sense that Japan has been abandoned on the 'abductee issue' and even potentially worse on the nuclear issue."
Then again, Pyongyang has always ignored Japanese and US-Japanese requests to provide Tokyo with additional information on the fate of the missing kidnapped victims, and Prime Minister Aso may still count on Washington's support for his plans to equip Japan with the means to defend itself from North Korean rogue missiles, or worse.
Shooting down rogue missiles
Aso - a self-described "nationalist security hawk" with an impressive record of publicly (and noisily) expressing his animosity towards North Korea (and China, for that matter) - resembles his predecessors Junichiro Koizumi, Shinzo Abe and most recently, Yasuo Fukuda. He is a strong supporter of US-Japanese cooperation to jointly develop a regional missile defense system.
The US and Japan started working on developing a missile defense system in 1998 when North Korea launched a missile over northern Japan, and have reached the phase of testing the system on a regular basis.
In December 2007, a Japanese warship stationed off Hawaii launched a US-developed Standard-3 interceptor missile and successfully destroyed a mock target fired from onshore, marking (long-awaited) progress on the development of the system.
Tokyo estimates that Pyongyang has deployed hundreds of missiles aimed at Japanese territory - missiles capable of reaching downtown Tokyo in less than 10 minutes, at least in theory. To be sure, Pyongyang's missile testing of recent years has been the very opposite of successful, leaving doubts as to whether its arsenal constitutes a real threat in the first place.
Land-based Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3) missile defense systems have already been installed at two bases in Japan, and ultimately Tokyo plans to install missile interceptor systems on four of its destroyers equipped with state-of-art Aegis tracking system, just in case.
Aso's China problem
But there is (much) more on Aso's foreign and security policy agenda, and relations with China are very close to the top. Territorial disputes in the East China Sea; disagreements over the interpretation of Japan's World War II imperialism; the controversy over Yasukuni, a Shintoist Shrine and resting place to a number of convicted A-class Japanese war criminals; and poisoned dumplings from China are on policymakers minds' in Tokyo and in Beijing.
For starters, Aso is known (and disliked in China, to say the least ) for supporting former prime minister Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and advising the Japanese emperor to also visit the controversial Shrine honoring Japan's war dead. Ideas like that and earlier advice for China "to keep quiet about Yasukuni because the more China complains, the more one feels like going there," ensured that bilateral relations hit rock-bottom during his earlier tenure as Japan's foreign minister from 2005-2007.
Given his record of animosity towards China, Aso is not necessarily the best-equipped with the skills and patience to make much progress on resolving the issue. There is deep-rooted mistrust towards China amongst Abe and his like-minded (mostly conservative and ultra-conservative LDP politicians) followers, as well as concerns that Beijing is planning to "take over" Japan's claimed territories in the East China Sea once Tokyo starts negotiating with Beijing.
To be sure, China is not in much of a hurry to solve the dispute, either. While former prime minister Fukuda launched negotiations on concluding a treaty over a joint gas development project in the disputed waters during his one-year tenure, Beijing has yet to agree to the idea of institutionalizing Sino-Japanese exploration of gas and oil in the contested waters.
In the recent past, Aso has repeatedly and very publicly expressed his concerns about China's rising defense budget and the rapid modernization of its armed forces, although Aso's judgment may be based more on hearsay than knowledge, Ken Jimbo, Associate Professor at Keio University in Tokyo, says.
"Aso repeatedly referred to China as a threat, which goes beyond the official government line which does not refer to China as such. But Aso has no in-depth knowledge on the Chinese military build-up and simply thinks that China builds up its military without enough transparency and therefore is a threat," he told ISN Security Watch.
For now, however, the Japanese prime minister is likely to continue his recent predecessors' economic engagement course with China, Hughes said. "Aso will probably be fairly pragmatic on China. He is highly suspicious of China on issues of military transparency, and may not tone down his government's criticism here. However, in economics I think he will try to follow through with Fukuda's agenda, if with a slightly less conciliatory tone."
Indeed, realistically, Aso does not have much of a choice but to continue his predecessor's strategy of seeking to improve relations with China. Japan is again on the brink of recession, and given the volume of Japanese-Chinese trade (US$230 billion in 2007), Aso can ill-afford to rock the boat of bilateral relations by visiting Yasukuni (which he did several times in the past) and risking yet another Koizumi-style interruption of Sino-Chinese political exchanges for years.
Visiting the lion's den
Instead, Aso appears to have decided to stay the course with his peculiar "I-should-not-say-whether-I-visit Yasukuni-or-not" ambiguity, when he meets Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Beijing on 24-25 October.
"It will just be an opportunity to meet," a Japanese government source was quoted as saying, indicating that the meeting was intended as an ice-breaker for Aso and his Chinese counterparts as opposed to talks about substantial issues affecting bilateral relations.
That, however, might be good enough for China, Xiao Ren, professor and associate dean at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, tolds ISN Security Watch.
"Beijing is expecting Aso to contribute to the stability of Chinese-Japanese relations, although Beijing is kicking the can down the road as there is uncertainty about how much longer he will remain in office," he said, referring to the possibility of early general elections in Japan.
Lower House elections are due in September 2009, but given the lack of public approval for Aso's Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) and pressure from the opposition led by Ichiro Ozawa's Democratic Party of Japan (DSP), elections could take place much earlier.
Beyond East Asia
Before that happens, however, Aso and his government must deal with challenges beyond East Asia, namely in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East.
Authorized by the so-called Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law, the Japanese navy has been refueling US, British and other nations' vessels engaged in the war in Afghanistan since November 2001. The law was extended several times in recent years and will expire again January 2009. The DSP's fierce opposition to extending the law, however, could (as it did in 2008) turn this into a very time-consuming and controversial legal process.
The Japanese Air Forces' mission in Kuwait transporting supplies and members of the militaries of other nations as well as those of the United Nations between Kuwait and Iraq, on the other hand, will expire this December, and Aso is happy to call it quits in the Middle East, according to Hughes.
"Aso never really believed in the logic of the Iraq occupation in the first place. So he will be happy to extract Japan with honor, having done the minimum to please the US and to stretch Tokyo's armed forces overseas role," he said.
Admittedly, there is a lot on Japan's foreign and security policy agenda to chew on, even for as publicly brazen a figure as Aso. However, the Japanese prime minister's policy agenda and priorities are changing, according to Paul Midford, associate professor and director of the Japan Program at Norwegian University for Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway.
"Aso would like to prioritize foreign and security policy issues, including efforts to revise Japan's pacifist constitution. However, at least for now he appears to have given up on pushing as public opinion does not support such an agenda," he said.
Many in the LDP, too, Midford added, have learned the lesson that supporting such a proposal could be a one-way ticket out of power.
Consequently, Aso has changed his tune recently, announcing he would instead focus on the Japanese economy, which has been suffering from stagnancy, weak consumer spending and inflation.
This is likely a welcome break from the Aso-style Japanese megaphone diplomacy, at least for his critics at home and abroad, and is expected to last until the Japanese economic growth rebounds and the Nikkei Index rises.
Axel Berkofsky is Professor at the University of Pavia, Italy and Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Milan-based Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI).
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