Sun, Apr 17, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Japan taking on a fiestier approach to foreign affairs

TAKING A STAND Having long relied on a low-key and uncontroversial approach to diplomacy, postwar Japan has begun to assert its national interest more aggressively


Escalating tensions between Japan and China over Tokyo's militaristic past and its hopes for a permanent US Security Council seat are part of a string of international disputes that show how Japan is growing less willing to back down in tiffs with its neighbors.

In recent months, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has talked tough with South Korea over disputed islets and stressed to Russia that several Moscow-held islands in the North Pacific belong to Japan. His government has identified China's expanding military and threats against Taiwan as top security concerns, and Tokyo has threatened economic sanctions on North Korea.

"In the past, Japan always avoided taking a stand on diplomatic issues. But Japan has realized that tactic doesn't work, and its own public has criticized it as too weak," said Masaru Ikei, a professor of international politics at Keio University in Tokyo.

The intensifying feud with China in recent weeks marks Japan's latest display of assertiveness.

Last week, Chinese protesters threw stones and broke windows at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing to denounce Japan's approval of textbooks that critics say glosses over Tokyo's wartime aggression.

But instead of making conciliatory gestures, Japan stirred things up further by announcing it would go ahead with plans to explore deep-sea natural gas fields in a disputed area of the East China Sea, despite Beijing's claim that the area is in China's exclusive economic zone.

Chinese leaders have said the protests were Japan's fault because it has failed to properly atone for its wartime past. Tokyo, however, has flatly rejected that, and is demanding an apology from Chinese authorities and pressing them to denounce the violence.

Then on Friday, Japan's Foreign Ministry issued a report accusing China of violating maritime law by prospecting for natural resources in Japan's exclusive economic zone and intruding in Japan's territorial waters, among other transgressions that "threaten Japan's national security, sovereignty and other rights." Tokyo said it would, however, settle for peaceful dialogue.

The flare-up comes amid longer-term friction between the two countries as they compete for political and economic dominance in Asia. China has been eager to translate its rapidly expanding financial might into diplomatic muscle and a greater military presence in the Pacific.

China is not the only country Japan is wrangling with.

Last September, Koizumi took a provocative boat trip to the coast of the Russian-held southern Kuril islands in the North Pacific, proclaiming them an "integral part of Japan."

The tougher posture reflects Japan's ambitions to influence world affairs in line with its status as the globe's second-largest economy. Tokyo has dispatched troops to Iraq, is seriously considering revising its pacifist constitution and is working on a joint missile-defense shield with top ally the US.

Despite flourishing trade with Asia, analysts say Koizumi has abandoned all pretense at currying favor with its neighbors -- in part for political advantage at home.

"Japan's foreign policy isn't guided by philosophy or ideology -- it's just nationalism. Koizumi is putting on a show for domestic constituents," said Takehiko Yamamoto, an international relations expert at Waseda University.

Still, Japan has picked its battles carefully, staying on friendly terms with countries in Europe and above all the US, which stations more than 50,000 troops in Japan under a decades-old security treaty.

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