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Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008

Self-styled hawk Aso displays a dovish side on foreign policy

Staff writer

Following back-to-back prime ministerial resignations by conservative star Shinzo Abe and political dove Yasuo Fukuda, where does the new president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party rate on the hawk-dove scale?

"Taro Aso is a hawk," Aso, who defines the term as being able to sacrifice oneself for Japan's peace and national interest, acknowledged in Tokyo last week.

The blunt-spoken Fukuoka native has described China as a "growing military threat" and accuses Beijing of politicizing the Yasukuni Shrine issue.

In October 2006, he backed former LDP policy chief Shoichi Nakagawa, who called for a discussion on whether Japan should consider developing a nuclear arsenal.

But some experts say he may not be as extreme a rightwinger as the media have portrayed him.

"Though Aso shares essential values with Abe, he is not as hawkish" in terms of foreign policy, said Fukashi Horie, a former political science professor at Keio University in Tokyo.

Abe was vocal about his conservatism, but Aso, who ran a family firm before turning to politics, has management capabilities and will likely remain objective and in tune with public opinion, according to Horie.

Aso, generally considered to believe in a conservative foreign policy, has raised eyebrows in the past with controversial comments.

He has favored a revision of the peace clause in the Constitution to facilitate the deployment of the Self-Defense Forces overseas, and has at times openly shared his revisionist views in public.

The 1939 decree forcing Koreans to adopt Japanese names originated because Koreans "asked for surnames," he said during a speech in May 2003. He later apologized for the remark.

Regarding the contentious Yasukuni Shrine, he reiterates that it is a domestic issue and must not create diplomatic tension with China and South Korea.

The tension between Japan and China is rooted in the Chinese government "politicizing a religious and domestic issue," he states on his Web site.

A report compiled by the Congressional Research Service of the U.S. Library of Congress last week described Aso as "a popular figure known for his conservative foreign policy credentials," with some of his revisionist reputation possibly leading to tensions with China and South Korea.

But Aso has recently diluted much of his conservatism on foreign policy as his chances of winning the party's presidency grew.

While LDP presidential candidate Yuriko Koike openly stated that she would pay a visit to Yasukuni Shrine if elected, Aso refused to commit himself one way or the other.

In his most recent publication, "Totetsumo nai Nihon" ("An Extraordinary Japan"), he says China's development as a major economic power is "favorable" and bilateral relations must overcome the past with a focus on "reconciliation and cooperation."

Aso's experience as foreign minister may have contributed to a mellowing of his outlook. In fact, he will be the first former foreign minister to become prime minister since Keizo Obuchi, who was in the top slot from 1998 to 2000.

During his stint at the Foreign Ministry, which lasted nearly two years, he supported strict economic sanctions against North Korea and played a key role in drafting a U.N. Security Council resolution in 2006 condemning Pyongyang for testing long-range missiles.

But at the same time, he refrained from visiting Yasukuni Shrine.

"It is important for a prime minister to be capable of asserting one's opinion for the benefit of the country," a senior Foreign Ministry official said last week, effectively raising hopes that Aso will be effective in managing foreign issues and relations.

Former Keio University professor Horie agrees that Aso should be able to handle diplomatic matters — including the obligation to import foreign rice that has created a quandary in the wake of the Mikasa Foods tainted rice scandal.

But he believes imminent domestic issues will shape his diplomacy agenda for now.

"Aso will likely have no choice but to put all his effort into domestic issues and prepare for the looming Lower House election, instead of focusing on foreign matters," Horie said.

The report by the Congressional Research Service also states that domestic issues such as pension reforms will be prioritized over foreign policy legislation.

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The Japan Times

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