Policy Update 009

What Diplomatic Policies should Japan Pursue in the Post-Saddam Era?

Faculty Fellow, RIETI

RIETI: How do you evaluate Prime Minister Koizumi's policies on the war in Iraq?

Curtis: From the perspective of Japanese national interests, I don't think that Prime Minister Koizumi had much of a choice. The terrorist attack on September 11th changed American attitudes about what constitutes a real "alliance" and I have no doubt that US-Japan relations would have been badly damaged if Japan had not supported US policy on Iraq. So I think Prime Minister Koizumi has to be given credit for recognizing how important the Iraq issue was for US-Japan relations and for unambiguously supporting the US in spite of public opposition to US policy; and no doubt in spite of reservations within the Koizumi government itself about the wisdom of US policy. However, Iraq is in a sense a country very far from Japan. Even though it could expect to be criticized by some Arab countries for its decision to back the US, it did not have to worry about major damage to its national interests resulting from its decision to do so. North Korea is another matter entirely. North Korea is a neighboring country to Japan and its development of nuclear weapons is a direct threat to Japan. This is a totally different situation from what prevailed in Iraq. Japan's interests cannot be satisfied simply by saying it supports the United States. It is important that Japan makes absolutely clear to the United States what policy it thinks the US should adopt in dealing with North Korea. There is no settlement of the North Korean issue possible without cooperation between the US, Japan, and South Korea and close coordination with China. Furthermore, it is more difficult and serious issue for Japan than Iraq was.

RIETI: How can Japan square the US-Japan relationship and UN diplomacy?

Curtis: In Japan one hears a lot about the supposed choice Japan has to make between the US-Japan Security Treaty relationship and United Nations centered foreign policy, but to phrase the issue in either-or terms is nonsensical. The UN has a potentially large role to play with respect to many issues. The Bush Administration should be giving it far more importance than it is doing. However, is there really any Japanese who believes that the United Nations rather than the US-Japan security alliance can protect Japanese security? And if Japan thinks that the UN should be strengthened, it should come forward with specific proposals to accomplish that end and not simply embrace the illusion that "UN centered" diplomacy can provide for Japan's security. Moreover, the Bush Administration's stance with respect to North Korea is quite the opposite of that toward Iraq in that it apparently wants to bring the North Korean case to the UN Security Council and use the UN to put pressure on North Korea. It is stressing multilateralism with respect to North Korea rather than unilateralism. The North Koreans are saying that the Security Council's adoption of economic sanctions would be tantamount to a declaration of war. One wonders what those who believe in UN centered diplomacy make of this.

RIETI: If Japan relies too heavily on its relationship with the US, would Japan risk harming its position in Asia?

Curtis: Just as there is no real choice between the US-Japan Security Treaty and the UN, neither is there a choice between US-Japan relations or relations with Asia. Over the mid to long term, perhaps the most critical issue for Japanese foreign policy is how to deal with China. Economic interdependence between Japan and China is bound to grow deeper over the coming years, but at the same time Japan's relationship with the United States is likely to become even more important in terms of maintaining a power balance in the East Asian region. Relations with China and ASEAN are of course extremely important for Japan, but in recent years, in part as a result of Japan's long economic stagnancy, China-ASEAN economic relations have grown ever deeper while Japan's relative importance has declined. If the goal is to strengthen Japan's position in Asia, probably the most important thing to do is take bolder actions to revitalize Japan's domestic economy. Furthermore, quite contrary to the concern that a Japanese emphasis on ties with the US might worsen its position in Asia, for other Asian countries that believe that the US-Japan alliance is of critical importance for the security of Asia as a whole a worsening of US-Japan relations would increase concerns about Japan in the region.

RIETI: North Korea participated in the three party talks with the US and China on April 23 in Beijing, changing its previous attitude of rigid rejection of multilateral negotiations. Do you think North Korea reversed its policy due to the outcome of war in Iraq?

Curtis: It is still not clear what lessons the North Koreans are drawing from the Iraq war. It may be that they concluded that they have to move quickly to negotiate with the United States and to show some willingness to compromise and that this is what led to the recently held three party talks in Beijing. However, it is also possible that they concluded that they have to move with determination to acquire nuclear weapons because the lesson of Iraq is that without them they will be subject to a preemptive strike. In other words, we do not know whether nuclear weapons are for North Korea a tactic designed to draw the US to the negotiating table, or whether North Korea has decided on a strategy of possessing nuclear weapons regardless of what position the United States takes in negotiations. In any case, relations with North Korea are one of the most difficult and dangerous issues Japan has faced in its post-World War Two diplomacy. For that reason especially, it is important to analyze the situation coolly and objectively. The mass media, however, sometimes makes it seem as though North Korea is about to attack Japan tomorrow. Also, the Japanese mass media are making too much of the so-called "neo-con" phenomenon in the United States. Actually, the North Korean threat is suddenly turning Japanese who had not given much thought to security matters before into hawks, creating a "Japanese neo-con" phenomenon that may be more deserving of attention than the American one. American neo-conservative commentators have a big influence but within the Bush Administration itself power resides not so much with the neo-cons as it does with old fashioned conservatives like Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.

A real strategic dialogue is needed between the US and Japan on North Korea. Even the Bush Administration must recognize that unlike the Iraq situation, the North Koreans cannot be made to give up their nuclear weapons quest without the US getting close cooperation from other countries. If the US were to bomb the nuclear facilities at Yongbon, for example, without the prior agreement of South Korea and Japan, it would spell the end of the US-South Korean alliance and it would create a huge problem with Japan as well. The US cannot ignore Japan and South Korea when it comes to North Korea as it could ignore France and Germany in dealing with Iraq.

Prime Minister Koizumi's visit to Pyongyang last September created a lot of expectations that the two countries would move quickly towards normalizing diplomatic relations, but those negotiations have been suspended. It is natural for Japan to stress to North Korea that there can be no normalizing of relations without a solution to the abduction issue, but at the same time, it is important for Japan to be realistic and recognize that there is no solution to the abduction issue except as part of a comprehensive settlement. Japan has a very big card to play in relations with North Korea since a comprehensive settlement would involve a very large financial payment from Japan to North Korea. This has to be an important incentive for North Korea, given the disastrous state of its economy. A combination of pressure and incentives is necessary in dealing with North Korea. While pressuring North Korea to desist from its nuclear weapons program, it is important to show that they have something to gain from doing so in terms of economic aid, energy assistance and so on.

I believe that Japan acted in its own national interests when it backed the US position on Iraq and in its efforts to coordinate policy with the US over North Korea. I do not agree that this is just a matter of "following in the US footsteps" as it is so popular in Japan to say it is. However, unless the Japanese government does better at explaining to its own people why the policies it has been adopting on these and other difficult foreign policy issues are necessary, distrust will deepen and anti-American sentiment will spread wider. How the Japanese government relates to its own public in pursuing its foreign policy and in being accountable for its actions are likely to become increasingly important issues in the coming years.

>> Original text in Japanese

Interview conducted by Toko Tanimoto, chief online editor, and Akiko Kumagai, online editor, on May 12, 2003.

May 12, 2003

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