[OUTLOOK]Japan must improve ties with AsiaThe cabinet reshuffle that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi carried out on Oct. 21 is causing big waves. Prior to the announcement, there were predictions that Mr. Koizumi would select a moderate, Fukuda Yasuo, former chief cabinet secretary, as foreign minister to improve relations with such neighboring countries as South Korea and China.
Prime Minister Koizumi, however, crushed those predictions by picking hard-liners ― Shinzo Abe as chief cabinet secretary and Taro Aso as foreign minister.
Mr. Koizumi’s appointments reflect a strong political will on the part of the Japanese government that Asian affairs will not top its foreign policy agenda and that it won’t succumb to an attempt to exercise political influence with problems related to history.
Foreign Minister Aso said that when Mr. Koizumi offered him the job, he asked the prime minister if a hard-liner like him could do it. In response, Mr. Koizumi, according to Japanese press reports, assured Mr. Aso that Japan-China relations ran smoothly during the Takeo Fukuda cabinet and that diplomatic performances were good with hardliners. These reports lay bare Mr. Koizumi’s obstinate attitude that he will resolve strife with Japan’s neighbors in a straightforward manner.
The problem of the cabinet reshuffle this time is that Mr. Koizumi’s foreign policy of treating Asia lightly will affect post-Koizumi Japanese politics. By keeping Yasuo Fukuda, the former chief cabinet secretary, out of the picture, Mr. Koizumi has eliminated Mr. Fukuda from a four-way competition to succeed him as prime minister. Mr. Fukuda takes a different stance from the prime minister on Asian diplomacy, appealing for prudence on the issue of the prime minister’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.
With his elimination, the three in the running to succeed Mr. Koizumi are hard-liner Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki.
As Mr. Abe and Mr. Aso both cite bilateral relations with the United States as Japan’s top diplomatic agenda, we can expect the newly-formed cabinet to lean closer to the United States, while largely ignoring neighboring Asian nations, including South Korea. That spells out trouble in restoring trust between South Korea and Japan in the post-Koizumi days.
We also want to pay close attention to how Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe, who takes a hardline stance toward Pyongyang, will affect Japan’s North Korea policy. It is true that Mr. Koizumi’s decision to resume normalization talks with Pyongyang despite domestic opposition has brought a positive effect on the Korean Peninsula. If the appointment of Mr. Abe as chief cabinet secretary is part of the prime minister’s strategy to embrace opponents, then it will contribute to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.
As for Mr. Abe himself, there are calls from within the Japanese political circle that he needs to change his hard-liner image, concerning North Korea, to pave his way toward the prime ministership. If Mr. Abe can mollify his hard-line image in normalization negotiations with North Korea by aggressively leading them, it would mean carving out a positive political role for Japan in the Northeast Asian region.
But as things stand, it seems unlikely that Japan’s foreign policy will travel down such positive lanes, and there is no ruling out the possibility that Mr. Abe and Mr. Aso may unite with the United States to pressure for a hard-line policy toward North Korea and on the Korean Peninsula.
In addition, if Japan should attempt to aggrandize its military role, riding on the back of U.S. support, it will only deepen the distrust and strife in the region. High mountain peaks means deep valleys. Should the depth of conflict deepen further, it will become more difficult to do away with the emotional residue left in its wake.
It is time for the leadership of Japanese diplomacy to show confidence in South Korea and other neighboring countries, not let residual distrust mount up.
Along with that, South Korea should demand from Japan a systematic and logical method to address the existing residual distrust and to improve bilateral relations.
* The writer is head of Japan Research Center at Sejong Institute. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Jin Chang-soo