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Sunday, June 25, 2006

Koizumi's foreign policy: U.S. always comes first

Staff writer

As far as diplomacy is concerned, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is arguably the most controversial leader Japan has seen in recent years — a man both censured and praised since taking office in April 2001.

News photo
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi chats with U.S. President George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, in May 2003 and meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the Asia-Africa summit in Jakarta in April 2005.
News photo

His diplomatic stance has been a nightmare for those hoping for closer ties between Japan and its Asian neighbors, but to conservatives he has been a quick, decisive leader advocating stronger military ties with the United States.

"(Koizumi) likes to make things clear, like black or white," observed Tomohito Shinoda, an associate professor of politics at International University of Japan in Niigata Prefecture.

Shinoda said Koizumi is a unique prime minister in that he has exercised strong diplomatic initiatives in a country that traditionally prefers consensus-building and control by bureaucrats.

His main pillar has been full commitment to the security alliance with the United States. He has said he believes the better Japan's ties with Washington, the greater the likelihood good relationships can be forged with other nations.

Koizumi used his staff at the Cabinet Secretariat, rather than Foreign Ministry bureaucrats, to quickly draft legislation on urgent — and often contentious — security issues, Shinoda pointed out.

One such law allowed the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq, the centerpiece of Japan's support for the U.S.-led invasion.

Although both the staff and functions of the prime minister's office were greatly enhanced by the administrative reforms implemented by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who served from 1996 to 1998, Koizumi was the first prime minister who did not hesitate to fully use this new power, Shinoda said.

He praised Koizumi for wiping away the diplomatic disgrace Japan suffered in the 1991 Gulf War, when Tokyo's support for the U.S.-led multinational forces was criticized as being "too little, too late" despite Japan's heavy dependence on Mideast oil.

But on Asia, Koizumi's decisiveness has often been criticized by observers as only stubbornness without strategy.

Despite repeated petitions from business leaders and Foreign Ministry officials, Koizumi has continued to visit Yasukuni Shrine, straining relations with China and South Korea.

"(Koizumi) hasn't thought about the Yasukuni issue (in the context of) diplomatic strategy at all," said Hideyoshi Soeya, a professor of international politics at Keio University.

Many pundits in China and South Korea regard Koizumi's tough stance on Yasukuni as a tactic to swing Japanese voters and politicians to the right.

But Soeya and other observers say the prime minister is not that ideological. Koizumi, who is generally viewed and praised as a "stubborn maverick," has simply stuck to his campaign promise to keep visiting the shrine after he was elected head of the Liberal Democratic Party in April 2001, Soeya argued.

In addition, he said, Koizumi's main interests since taking office have been domestic issues, such as postal privatization, and he has stuck with the easiest strategy on the diplomatic front — maintaining a good relationship with Washington.

Jitsuro Terashima, honorary chairman of the nonprofit Japan Research Institute, said Koizumi's foreign policy strategies are simplistic and lack creativity.

"Of course, the relationship with the U.S. is very important, but Japanese leaders should simultaneously send the message that Japan will keep deepening its alliance with Asian nations," Terashima said.

Many experts have said that because Japan had built up a lot of good will in the Middle East as the only developed country with no record of military intervention or arms exports to the region, Tokyo could have taken a different strategic position from that of the U.S. during the war against Iraq.

But by throwing his full support behind President George W. Bush, Koizumi failed to present Japan as an international leader capable of creative diplomacy, Terashima argued.

"The Koizumi Cabinet has been a unprecedentedly pro-American administration," he said.

Observers say whoever becomes succeeds Koizumi, who has said he will step down as LDP president in September, will first have to face the daunting task of rebuilding ties with China and South Korea, both powerful rivals and partners in the region.

One focus of interest is whether Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, regarded as the front-runner to be the next prime minister, will visit Yasukuni Shrine.

Abe, known as a hardliner on China, South Korea and North Korea, has so far avoided saying whether he will go to the shrine should he become prime minister.

Keio University's Soeya predicted that if he declares he won't visit Yasukuni, Abe, who already enjoys high popularity, will endear himself to an even wider part of the public, widening his lead over former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, whom political insiders say is also contemplating running for the post.

Fukuda's support mainly comes from those seeking better ties with Asia and are heartened by his criticism of Koizumi's Yasukuni pilgrimages, and should Abe forgo the visits it would erode Fukuda's popularity as an alternative to "Koizumi-style diplomacy."

But if Abe goes to Yasukuni, the situation will become more serious than in Koizumi's case, Soeya said.

Apart from Yasukuni, Koizumi has tried to improve ties with China.

He has clearly stated that Japan's war with other Asian nations was "wrong," and in April 2005 he apologized in public at the Bandung Conference for the "aggression and colonization" of Asian nations.

"But Abe's view is different," Soeya pointed out. "His views on the war are more conservative."

For example, Abe has consistently refused to comment on the responsibility of the Class-A war criminals honored at Yasukuni, including wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, saying only future historians, not present-day politicians, will be able to pass proper judgment.

"I think Abe is a politician smart enough not to go to Yasukuni" to avoid diplomatic friction, Soeya said. "But if he goes, it would mean he is launching a serious (diplomatic) battle against China. (The issue) would be a very important touchstone for Abe and Japan's diplomacy."

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