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Friday, Oct. 9, 2009

Trilateral meet to test Hatoyama slogans


Staff writer

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama hit the ground running in the first days of his administration, traveling to New York and announcing to the U.N. General Assembly that Japan hopes to become a "bridge" between its Asian neighbors.

This weekend he heads to Beijing for a crucial trilateral meeting with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts, where he must try to turn his words into deeds.

There are doubters. "I feel the administration may be putting too much emphasis on its 'fraternity' slogan," said Masaru Ikei, a professor emeritus at Keio University.

Ikei, an expert on regional history and politics, warned that skillful diplomacy requires tough-minded negotiations to protect the nation's interests, not slogans.

"Hatoyama's ideas are fine, but they are very idealistic," Ikei said, expressing hope that the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration works to advance relations with the two countries instead of pitching grand concepts.

One key proposal by the DPJ to promote closer regional ties is the creation of an "East Asian community." Hatoyama touched on the idea during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly, saying the group could be developed "as an extension of the accumulated cooperation, built up step by step, among partners who have the capacity to work together."

But critics were quick to point out that wrapping complex issues in Hatoyama's gauzy ideas of "fraternity" would probably not yield concrete gains.

"The East Asia community is a vision for the future," Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada acknowledged to reporters last month when asked about the proposal. Okada stressed that the DPJ isn't suggesting that countries immediately adopt a single currency or integrate along the lines of the European Union.

"I believe it is difficult to grasp the exact nature of an East Asian community even if we try to at this point," Okada said, noting the governments should focus on what is on the table now, rather than trying to flesh out a community.

But initial meetings between Hatoyama and his counterparts fell far short of addressing the issues that have caused tension in the region.

Hatoyama failed to make visible progress when he met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in New York last month. The two merely agreed to work toward ending the economic slump and pressing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons. Hatoyama and Hu glossed over issues problematic for bilateral relations.

On the joint gas-development project in the East China sea agreed between the two sides in June 2008, the two leaders said they would seek progress in the near future. But details of the agreement have yet to be worked out.

The two sides also avoided specific proposals on food safety, a problem that became acute in January 2008 when several people in Japan were reported to have been sickened by tainted frozen dumplings imported from China. The two sides pledged to work together to build trust, but nothing more.

Hatoyama's meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak was no more fruitful than his talks with Hu. While they agreed to cooperate on bringing Pyongyang back to the six-party talks on denuclearizing the North, Hatoyama and Lee turned a blind eye to contentious issues, including the bilateral row of rocky, Seoul-controlled outcroppings in the Sea of Japan known as Takeshima by Japan and Dokdo by South Korea.

Foreign Ministry bureaucrats say trilateral relations are on the right track and much improved from the bitter atmosphere of Junichiro Koizumi's administration. The hawkish former prime minister repeatedly visited the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, souring ties with Japan's neighbors.

"There were difficult times for us in the past," a senior Foreign Ministry official said, pointing out that major meetings involving the three countries were not possible when Koizumi was in office, and that the leaders had to settle for quick talks over breakfast on a few occasions.

The second trilateral meeting Saturday follows last year's gathering in Fukuoka. In 2010, South Korea is expected to host the annual event.

"The constant trilateral meetings are a sign that the relationship is going favorably," the Foreign Ministry official said, hinting that success means just being able to hold the events.

But analyst Ikei said Hatoyama's administration doesn't have time to spare on firming up Japan's bonds with China and South Korea. Tough negotiations with Washington lie ahead. The rough spots in Asia must be smoothed over quickly if Hatoyama is to avoid a two-front war of words, Ikei said.



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