Calls for "Independent Diplomacy" Dog Ties

SOEYA Yoshihide
Faculty Fellow, RIETI

The rise of China continues to astound. The countries of Southeast Asia appear resolved to the inevitability of hitching their own futures to the ties they establish with the Chinese.

While these states cannot fully relinquish their inherent fear of China's superpower leanings - a reality underscored by security issues, historical experiences and other hard facts - these nations are also attracted and responding favorably to the concept of free trade being pursued by China.

South Korea particularly stresses the importance of China vis-a-vis the North Korean issue and the full range of its Asian policy platform. For the South Korean government, the recent visit to China by President Roh Moo Hyun was an uneventful diplomatic jaunt compared with his earlier trips to the United States and Japan. The Korean public and media took a favorable view of this China visit, in stark contrast to the fierce criticism that greeted Roh's talks in Washington and Tokyo.

While the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush initially labeled China a "strategic rival," its current goal is to seek out a road of coexistence with the Chinese. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the war on terrorism has emerged as the top priority for America, a situation that has served to steadily increase the importance of cooperation with China in attempting to resolve the North Korean issue.

For Beijing, too, nonconfrontation with Washington is a goal to which meticulous efforts are being devoted as China hammers out its economic strategies.

As such shifts continue, there is no shortage of Japanese who continue to view China with anxiety. It is true that past blunders in Chinese foreign policy, such as its Taiwan stance, overplaying the "history card" of Japan's wartime aggression and other hard-line stands, have even soured many once pro-Beijing Japanese.

But directly after this faulty course became painfully clear during the November 1998 Japan visit by then-President Jiang Zemin, China moved to redraw its Japan policy coordinates.

In October of the following year, the Prime Minister's Commission on Japan's Goals in the 21st Century, a group established by late Primi Minister Keizo Obuchi and of which I became a member, traveled to China. What the Chinese specifically conveyed to us at that time was the external policy of no longer confronting Japan on the pivotal issues of its past history or the security situation. Commenting with regard to the Chinese policy toward Japan pursued at the time of Jiang's visit, one Chinese official noted, "While the goal was on target, the approach was flawed."

Views will likely be split on whether this merely signaled a shift in strategy or provided evidence of a more essential change in policy. But it is certain that China's economic-focused strategy was behind the 1999 realignment of Chinese policy toward Japan.

Moreover, the new foreign policy being advanced by Beijing is designed to play up cooperative ties with the United States, motivates Southeast Asia and keep a close eye on the Korean Peninsula.

Yet, despite all this, Japan has taken no action. More accurately, perhaps, it appears the dislike and hard-line stands toward China among politicians and in public opinion act as shackles that prevent the government from taking more constructive action.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also has come up short on his efforts to upgrade Japan's China policy. Regarding his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the controversial memorial for all Japanese war dead, Koizumi reportedly has set "honoring my own principle" as his priority.

The fact this stance will stir up few waves in Japan further illustrates just how deep-rooted the problem is.

But such a stance signals a hollowing of Japanese foreign relations with China, a country that should rank right up with Japan-U.S. diplomacy in terms of importance.

Ironically, the solid state of Japan-U.S. ties and the stable U.S.-Sino relationship actually serve to support the haphazard state of Japan's international politicking with the Chinese.

As a case in point, the United States and China are currently seizing the initiative in the North Korean issue, with Japan just about remaining in the picture due to its alliance with Washington.

There is no outlook of any use by the Japanese on the leverage inherent in the diplomatic card of Japan-Sino collaboration.

A paradoxical situation in which the hard-line stance toward China, which should be appealing for "independent diplomacy," is actually binding Japanese diplomacy hand and foot has begun to emerge. The bottom line, in fact, is that Japanese diplomacy is losing its independent identity.

In Japan, meanwhile, keen discontent is brewing with the country's tendency to be subservient to the United States. Yet within the realm of Japan-U.S. diplomacy, too, the more Japan attempts to manifest its independence toward America, the greater its dependence on the United States becomes. Here is a paradox that effectively limits the independence of Japan's internatioinal relations.

Japanese nationalists, for example, are fond of claiming the right to exercise collective self-defense. They hope to use this stance as clout to expand the role of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), thereby enhancing Japan's independence. But to recognize the right to exercise collective self-defense would effectively permit Japan to fight side by side with America, with U.S. forces and the SDF becoming even more integrated as a result. Increased Japanese autonomy on this particular front would inject just that much more kinship into the Japan-U.S. alliance.

It is important to incorporate keen insight of the weight of this Japan-U.S. alliance into the foreign affairs debate. Japan must realize that only when it firmly grasps these basics will it be able to establish a relationship with the United States in which its own leaders can truly speak their minds.

Allowing the dissatisfaction with the current state of Japanese foreign relations to fuel the argument for "independence" out of a dislike for China and criticism of being a U.S. lackey represents a dead end as strategic theory.

Whether unconsciously or not, as long as Japan views itself as being in the same bracket as the likes of the United States or China, it will prove impossible to cultivate its current ties with those countries into balanced and coordinated and diplomatic theory.

If Japan can appreciate the situation from this angle, the potential for more fruitful diplomatic interaction with China will expand. Fortunately for Japan, the U.S.-China standoff is on hold for now. China, meanwhile, is doing its best to stick to a position of noncriticism of the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Japan should seize this opportunity to more strongly promote the move toward a system of economic interdependence bilaterally with China, as well as within the entire East Asia region, China included.

Then, working from a more extended perspective, I would like to see Japan rally its so-called soft power, rooted in the foundation of nonpower politics, to persevere in the quest to draft a "civil society-based strategy" for getting along with China.

The ability to establish diversified networking with Chinese society, which is growing more multidimensional each day, will strengthen the foothold for Japanese diplomacy with China over the mid-to-long term.

At the same time, such progress would also be likely to assist in accelerating China's integration into the outside world.

>> Original text in Japanese

* The article was reprinted from International Herald Tribune / The Asahi Shimbun on September 10, 2003. No reproduction or republication without written permission of the author and The Asahi Shimbun.

September 10, 2003 International Herald Tribune / The Asahi Shimbun

September 16, 2003

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