Incoming Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has wasted little time in making his mark, particularly in foreign policy. His official visits to China and South Korea -- two key countries with which relations suffered under the administration of Junichiro Koizumi -- came within a week of his taking office and at a moment of crisis, with North Korea setting off an underground nuclear blast.
That Abe and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) agreed that a North Korean nuclear test "cannot be tolerated" suggests that this new activism may help to stabilize Asian security.
As Abe made clear when he delivered a general policy speech late last month, his focus on foreign policy is set to intensify. But while Abe's commitment to what he describes as "future-oriented" relations with China and South Korea represents a welcome departure from the Koizumi government's record, his policy agenda in fact implies considerable continuity with Japan's heightened focus on diplomacy and security issues.
In particular, emphasizing a "shift to more assertive diplomacy," Abe's policy speech cited Japan's initiative in proposing sanctions against North Korea to the UN Security Council, and its success in overseeing -- through close coordination with the US and other countries -- the resolution's unanimous adoption. At the same time, he indicated his intention to advance diplomacy aimed at strengthening the solidarity among Asian nations, founded on "the Japan-US alliance for the world and for Asia."
Abe also stressed his intention to boost ties with Russia, promote cooperation with the ASEAN countries and develop a strategic dialogue with Australia and India. Likewise, under Abe, Japan will develop its official development assistance, seek to secure stable energy supplies and pursue permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
Toward North Korea, on the other hand, continuity will prevail, with Abe re-emphasizing the principle that normalization of relations requires resolution of abduction cases -- some dating to the 1970s -- involving Japanese citizens seized from coastal towns. At the same time, Japan will remain committed to the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program.
Abe recognizes the new challenges posed by proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, and has acknowledged rising expectations, at home and abroad, that Japan's contribution to international security must grow. Most importantly, he has proposed exercising the right to collective self-defense on a case-by-case basis -- thus far barred by Article 9 of the Constitution -- to maintain peace and promote effective functioning of the Japan-US alliance. Abe says that he would "expect" early adoption of the referendum law needed to amend the Constitution.
Abe's choice of personnel clearly reflects his focus on diplomatic and security issues. Yasuhisa Shiozaki, who occupies the key position of Cabinet secretary, is a long-time ally, while Foreign Minister Taro Aso, though a rival within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), shares Abe's policy priorities. Akio Kyuma, director-general of the Defense Agency, which is expected to be transformed into the Ministry of Defense, was instrumental in preventing Aso's ally, Fukushiro Nukaga, from running for LDP president.
Furthermore, Abe will seek to reorganize the prime minister's office to reinforce its ability to function as a headquarters that can make quick decisions on strategy concerning diplomatic and security issues. Thus, the prime minister's office will more closely resemble the US White House, which he hopes will enable both countries to communicate their intentions continuously and reliably.
Based on his previous experience as Cabinet secretary, Abe wants to create and operate a Japanese version of the US National Security Council.
For this, he has appointed Yuriko Koike, a former Cabinet member, as one of his five assistants, while one of the other four, Kyoko Nakayama, is responsible solely for the abduction issue. Moreover, although the current assistants' authority is limited, Abe plans to submit legislation aimed at strengthening the prime minister's office, including an amendment to the Cabinet law. This would enable the prime minister's assistants to "command and instruct" the relevant ministries and agencies. Abe's government may also review to increase the number of staff to which the assistants are entitled.
All of this has given rise to depictions of the Abe administration as a "Cabinet of hawks" or "the buddy club." Nevertheless, its level of popular support is the third-highest since the end of World War II (63 percent according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper; 70 percent according to the Yomiuri Shimbun).
This implies that Abe enjoys a strong mandate to implement his government's policies. But high expectations, both domestically and internationally, can lead to huge disappointments. If Abe is to create the "beautiful country" he promised in his policy speech, he must not lose momentum in exercising strong leadership.
Hideaki Kaneda, a former vice admiral of Japan's Defense Forces, is director of the Okazaki Institute, Tokyo.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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