Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda (71) has a ‘dovish’ personality in contrast to the conservative and nationalistic mindset of his predecessors, Koizumi and Abe, which would mean by implication his aspirations for smooth relationships with countries abroad, in particular for defusing tensions with neighbours, particularly China and North Korea, the two countries noted in the Japanese defence documents for their threat potentials. Aspects relating to Japan’s foreign policy, figured in Fukuda’s first policy speech (Tokyo, 1 October 2007) to the country’s parliament, have given indications for the same. The speech, in essence, did not mark a departure from the lines of his predecessors, particularly that of Abe. Fukuda’s reiteration of the importance of US-Japan alliance and call for ‘active Japanese diplomacy towards Asia, in resonance with that alliance’, have illustrated this point. The speech had some new points too, by way of identifying two pressing issues- continuation of activities by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) in the Indian Ocean to refuel the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan and early resolution of issues related to North Korea such as Pyongyang’s return of Japanese nationals abducted in the past, along with normalisation of bilateral ties.
Significantly, Fukuda later found a linkage between his country’s alliance with the US and relations with Asian nations. His first overseas visit as Prime Minister was to the US and in his remarks to President Bush, he stated (17 November 2007) that Japan’s “pro-active Asian diplomacy would in turn lead to the bolstering of its ties with the US”. As part of such diplomacy, he subsequently met the leaders of China, South Korea, ASEAN nations and India, during the ASEAN summit and the EAS gathering at Singapore.
In the specific case of India and Australia, however, there appears to be a subtle difference in Fukuda’s treatment from what has been seen in the past. In his speech, he made no mention of the two nations, while naming the countries of importance to Japan (the US, China, two Koreas, ASEAN nations and Russia), in contrast to the position of his predecessor Shinzo Abe, identifying India and Australia among other powers as Japan’s partnership nations on the basis of ‘shared fundamental values’ (policy speech, Tokyo, 26 January 2007). Abe, in his book “Beautiful Country”, had called for strengthening of Japan-India strategic relation. In his views, India is a “natural ally” of Japan and India’s democracy is superior to China’s opaque political system. Abe had been against comparing the Indian nuclear programme with that of North Korea.
Regarding ties with India, what appears certain is that Fukuda will work to ensure Japan’s ties with China and India do not become a zero sum game. Beijing has already been perceiving anti-China content in Japan-India relations under the Koizumi-Abe administrations and in that context, there seems to be some basis for raising the question – whether or not Fukuda’s symbolic downgrading of relations with India in his address, is intended as a signal to China about his intentions to balance Tokyo’s relations with Beijing?
Symbolism notwithstanding, there seems to be no attempt on the part of Fukuda in substance to dilute the importance of India’s place in Japan’s foreign policy. His meeting with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (Singapore, 22 November 2007), which witnessed a renewed emphasis on deepening the “Strategic Global Partnership” with India, is a case in point. A fact not to be missed is that strategically such a characterisation is richer in content in comparison to Japan’s terminology for ties with China – “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests”. In other words, unlike in the case of China, Japan-India ties are ‘global’ and that would be so even under Fukuda government. The agreements between the two leaders to conclude a bilateral FTA by middle 2008, strengthen the East Asian Summit mechanism as a building block for Asian Economic Community (AEC) and deepen bilateral cooperation in regional and multilateral fora on important issues such as UN Security Council Reforms and Climate Change, have confirmed that Japan-India relations would continue to flourish in spite of a regime change at Tokyo. From the viewpoint of New Delhi, a real breakthrough may come if Fukuda comes out with his unambiguous support to the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement, paving the way for Japan’s endorsement of the deal in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Prospects in this regard however look uncertain as on today, against the background of traditional anti-nuclear sentiments in Japan, which Fukuda may not choose to ignore.
On ties with China, the fact that Japan-China Peace and Friendship Treaty was signed in 1978, when his father Takeo Fukuda was the Prime Minister, could explain in part Fukuda’s inclination towards adopting a conciliatory approach towards Beijing. Thus, to assuage China’s concerns, he has promised not to visit the Yasukuni shrine, where souls of war criminals are enshrined, in the capacity of Prime Minster. Fukuda was even bold enough to suggest that a national war memorial could be built to replace the shrine. Also notable has been that Fukuda has so far shown no enthusiasm for his predecessor’s “Broader Asia” partnership concept, involving the democracies of the US, Japan, India and Australia, apparently taking note of Beijing’s doubts that such a grouping has China as target. He has commented that China follows a free economy and should not be asked to completely change its system, as that would mean rejection of that country. As such, Japan-China ties are poised to make steady progress under Fukuda leadership, even though the contentious issues may take time to get solved. The agreement between the two sides for a “ new stage of deepening strategic ties”, especially the Chinese promise to cooperate in resolving the East China sea gas exploration issue, (at the Fukuda-Wen Jiabao meeting, Singapore, 20 November 2007), along with the decision to open Japan-China Economic Dialogue on 1 December 2007, have brightened the atmospherics, prior to the planned visit of Fukuda to China by January 2008.
On North Korea, Fukuda’s policy line, as evidenced from his various statements, reflects the need felt by the leader for a flexible stance, without precipitating any crisis. He has indicated preference for a ‘dialogue and pressure’ approach towards Pyongyang on the abduction issue, discarding Abe’s hard line, making the settlement of that issue a pre-condition for Tokyo’s energy aid to Pyongyang, agreed as part of Six nation efforts for achieving nuclear disarmament in North Korea. At the same time, a primary objective of Fukuda is expected to be in the direction of pressing Washington not to remove North Korea from the list of States sponsoring terrorism, till a solution could be found on the abduction issue.
To sum up, it can be said that to meet the foreign policy and security challenges arising in the new century, Japan may require taking bold initiatives. Fukuda’s belief in conciliation and consensus building in policymaking may help him in domestic politics, but may become binding in the field of external relations. The leader has so far not been forthright on defence related issues without adding anything to the initiatives of the earlier regime to upgrade the Japanese defence posture like elevation of the Self Defence agency to that of a full-fledged ministry. In any case it is just three months since Fukuda took over and there should be no undue haste to pass a judgement on his security and foreign policies at this juncture.
(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. He had the experience of working in Hongkong, Tokyo and Beijing. The article is based on his contribution to the Annual Commemorative Volume of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Chennai. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)