Japan back to being third wheel

SIDELINED: Prime Minister Koizumi is still trying to keep a high profile diplomatically, but has been shunted off to the sidelines time and again

AP , TOKYO

Fri, May 23, 2003 - Page 5

Last autumn, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was on the forefront of the international effort to deal with North Korea, flying to Pyongyang to hear out North Korean President Kim Jong-il on everything from disarmament to the return of Japanese abductees.

Now, Koizumi's diplomatic offensive is in tatters. The crisis over North Korea's development of nuclear weapons has deepened, the future of the abductees is on hold, and the initiative has once again fallen on Washington.

For Japan, it's an all too predictable pattern.

Koizumi is still trying to keep a high diplomatic profile -- he is to meet US President George W. Bush in Texas today, swing through the Middle East and then attend a meeting of the Group of Eight in France.

But, experts say, he is increasingly seeing himself shunted off to the sidelines when important decisions are made.

"Japan is definitely on the sidelines, as it likes to be," said Arthur Waldron, a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania. "But it undermines Japan's interests."

Although this country has huge riches -- Japan's economy, though suffering over the past decade, is still second only to the US -- Tokyo has never had commensurate political clout.

Top Japanese officials bristle at the suggestion Japan is deliberately avoiding responsibility.

In recent years, they point out, Tokyo has been one of the UN's biggest financial contributors, and has pushed -- vigorously but unsuccessfully -- for a permanent seat on the Security Council.

The officials stress Tokyo is heavily involved in geopolitics, despite the limitations of its postwar ban on using troops for anything but defense or peacekeeping.

Tokyo this week hosted peace talks between Indonesian officials and rebels seeking the independence of the Aceh region on the island of Sumatra, and a "confidence-building" gathering of Palestinian and Israelis.

"There is a conscious effort on our part to let people and the international community know what Japan is doing," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiro Okuyama.

Still, critics say Tokyo has a tendency to let commerce rule its foreign policy. Even former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata once chided her own government for its "happy isolationism."

Koizumi has pushed Japan toward a more active role.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, he swiftly endorsed Bush's anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan and sent ships to support US and British vessels involved in hunting down remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

In March, he risked a backlash at home by lobbying UN Security Council members to back a US-British resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq.

But Koizumi has been reluctant to push Japan into more than a rearguard role, in part because of legal restraints and the suspicion it would raise among Japan's former World War II enemies.

For its military clout, Japan depends heavily on the US. Currently, about 50,000 US troops are stationed in Japan, which limits its ability to act independently.

"Japan feels safe relying on the United States for security, so Tokyo's foreign policy mostly involves going along with whatever Washington says," said Kang Yohng-ji, general director of the East Asia Research Institute.

That has been evident in Japan's approach to North Korea.

Talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang to normalize relations collapsed late last year over the fate of the Korean-born children of five Japanese allowed to return home after being kidnapped to North Korea in the late 1970s.

As Tokyo's efforts to deal with the North dried up, the US, South Korea, Russia and China have all since entered the fray, taking turns pressuring North Korea to scrap its suspected nuclear and missile development programs.

At his meeting with Bush, Koizumi is expected to bring up the possibility of imposing economic sanctions on North Korea. The North says it considers sanctions tantamount to a declaration of war.

But Koizumi's spokesman, Yu Kameoka, said the Japanese premier will likely await Washington's cue.

"Koizumi still wants to reopen talks with North Korea. But right now he is monitoring discussions between US and North Korean officials," Kameoka said.