Since Fukuda replaced Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister of Japan, he has promised to concentrate his diplomatic energies on Asia, paying more if not equal attention to its immediate region in addition to its all-important relationship with the US.
China is arguably the most important country for Japan in the Asian region. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has a legacy to follow here. He is the son of Takeo Fukuda, who was prime minister when Japan andChina signed their peace and friendship treaty in 1978. His father was considered by China as an old friend. The new moderate PM Fukuda said during his election campaign that "prime ministers should not visit the shrine" and promised not to do so if elected. "There is no need to do things that others hate," he said. His words have previously been backed up by actions. While serving as chief Cabinet secretary during the Koizumi administration, he had urged the setting up of a national war memorial facility to replace Yasukuni Shrine, a suggestion that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi refused to act on.
On his policy on China, a debate has emerged on how much the Japanese diplomatic pendulum will swing towards China away from Taiwan. "People say that (Fukuda) is good to China," said David Wang,Taiwan's Foreign Ministry spokesman. "However, we don't speculate on such matters." China’s emerging influence on Japan is only natural as China became Japan's top trading partner in 2004, a fact which political observers have said helped convince former PM Abe to warm up relations with Japan’s largest neighbour despite being an even stronger nationalistic politician than Koizumi.
Taiwan has enjoyed close ties with Japan despite Japan’s “One China Policy”. Besides being an important patron, Taiwan relies on help from Japan for its security. At a time of Washington’s frustrations with Taiwanese President Chen’s obstinacy in carrying out pro-independence agendas in the waning days of his presidency, Taipei needs Japanese support ever more.
Besides cross-Straits relations, the other big challenge for Fukuda is bilateral ties with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) which Choe Su Hon, Deputy Foreign Minister of the DPRK said is at its worst state. Choe, speaking at the general debate of the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly severely criticized Japan as the source of instability in Asia. “The Japanese authority is challenging the international community with regard to its past crimes”, he said, adding that "Japan is now playing a trick to divert the international attention elsewhere by clamoring fictitious kidnapping issue.”
Japan has less serious frictions with South Korea but even the bilateral relationship with its nearest neighbour has its own set of challenges. Japan and South Korea continue to fiercely dispute ownership over remote rocky islets in the Sea of Japan (called the East Sea in South Korea). Beyond being a mere territorial dispute, it is a historical issue involving ethnic pride in South Korea. South Korea harshly criticizedJapan’s Shimane prefectural assembly for passing a "Takeshima Day" ordinance in 2005 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its incorporation.
Nevertheless, as a sign of warming relations between Seoul and Tokyo, Roh praised Fukuda's emphasis on Asian diplomacy and urged Kim Jong-il of North Korea to take the opportunity to improve relations with Japan. In the inter-Korea summit talks held in Pyongyang, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun tried to engender a rapprochement between Tokyo and Pyongyang. During his meeting with North’s Kim, South Korean President Roh suggested that Kim make the first move to improve relations between Japan and North Korea against the backdrop of Fukuda’s Asian overtures.
Roh told Kim that normalizing Japan-North Korea ties is crucial for peace on the peninsula and in Northeast Asia. Roh also passed along a message to Kim from Fukuda that said the issues of North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals and Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and missile development programs must be addressed before ties can be normalized. In the message, Fukuda asked North Korea to return abductees to Japan, punish the abductors and to look into why the abductions occurred. In response, North Korean Leader Kim said he wanted to see what stand Fukuda's government takes toward North Korea before deciding on whether to adopt a more conciliatory approach with Tokyo.
There are also new challenges for Fukuda in Southeast Asia. For years, Japan has been confused over its foreign policy over Myanmar. It has bowed to Western pressure to place nominal restrictions on trading with the military junta in that country but at the same time, desist from all-out cut in relationship for fear of losing out total economic influence in that country to China and India. Japan has limited its assistance to Myanmar to humanitarian relief programs since 2003, following the detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi by the Myanmar government. This is equivalent to a diplomatic slap on the wrist. However, in fiscal year 2006, Tokyo provided about 3 billion yen in financial and technical aid, mainly for emergency humanitarian relief programs and projects.
But, given the latest crackdown on protestors in Myanmar and the shooting of a Japanese journalist in that country, Japan is leaning toward reducing its humanitarian assistance to Myanmar. Kenji Nagai, a 50-year-old veteran video journalist, was covering a street protest organized by Buddhist monks and pro-democracy activists in Yangon (Rangoon) when he was shot dead apparently by a soldier trying to disperse the crowd. Japan is demanding a thorough investigation on the Nagai shooting by the Myanmar government and demanding the return of the camcorder the journalist was using when he was shot.
Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura told reporters in Tokyo that the government is looking into freezing of some grant projects. This may include the 550 million yen that has been earmarked in the current fiscal year budget to build a human resource development center in Myanmar and supply related equipment. "Some argue that the government should halt all assistance to Myanmar, but I don't think it is a good idea to suspend relief programs that directly benefit the struggling people," Komura said.
Overall, Japan’s traditional influence in the Asian region has come from its economic might. However, even this traditional source of strength is also becoming a challenge for Fukuda. To cut governmental spending, Japan has slashed its official development assistance for the eighth straight year through fiscal 2007. This prompted the World Bank to warn Japan that she should remain committed to lifting millions of people around the world out of poverty and not be shortsighted about foreign aid even though it is under budget constraints.
Praful Patel, the World Bank's vice president for South Asia, on a two-day visit to Japan expressed hope that Tokyo would reverse its declining trend in ODA, saying Japan should continue to play a leading role in assisting developing countries, including those in South Asia. He said that continuing to provide aid to South Asia will serve Japan's interests as well, citing benefits for the private sector.
"The fastest growing region in the world is South Asia, with the fastest growing consumer population, or middle-class," he said. The World Bank projects the Indian economy, the largest in the region, to grow at 9 percent in 2007. The almost 400 million Indian people will increase demand for consumer products, including those made by Japanese firms, Patel said. "It will be a huge market opportunity," he added.
Boosting foreign aid to South Asia will also help stem the growth of extremism and terrorism, and eventually lead to ensuring stability and peace in the region, the World Bank executive said. In addition, the region is geopolitically important for Japan, he said. The sealane that runs through the Indian Ocean needs to be safe and open for the Japanese economy, he pointed out. Thanks to foreign aid by Japan and other donor countries, as well as multilateral aid organizations, South Asian countries have seen remarkable progress in reducing poverty recently, Patel said.
Kim to Fukuda: The next move is up to you (Asahi, 6 Oct 2007)
Fukuda won't forsake Taiwan for China: experts (Japan Times, 6 Oct 2007)
Can Fukuda improve ties with China? (Japan Times, 4 Oct 2007)
Japan moving to cut aid to Myanmar (Asahi, 4 Oct 2007)
World Bank asks Japan to maintain foreign aid (Japan Times, 4 Oct 2007)
DPRK sees relationship with Japan at worst stage (People’s Daily, 3 Oct 2007)
Takeshima islets, an issue where ethnic pride still rules the day (Asahi, 28 September 2007)