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Japanese Prime Minister engaged in delicate balancing act

Let's Japan has been lucky in the past to have others share their stories here. For 2010, LJ introduces the Kotatsu Commentator, who will be adding his voice here.

The Japanese government is in the middle of a delicate balancing act. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his coalition government are busy making inroads in a rising tide of Asian power, while preserving the close diplomatic relations with the empire that has helped provide their current prosperity.

The positive developments have been on the side of increasing the Japanese profile in Asian affairs, but many speculators and political junkies believe this move has come at the cost of Japanese/ American bilateral relations. Hatoyama had the opportunity to discuss Asian affairs with his counterparts, Primier Wen Jiabao of China, and President Lee Myung-bak of Korea at the second Japan-China-ROK trilateral summit meeting in October of 2009.

At the press conference following the summit, Wen Jiabao was the first to speak, "Through this summit, the future direction for Japan-China-ROK cooperation has become clearer, the content of that cooperation has been further enriched, and our determination is now firmer than ever before. I am convinced that the future of our trilateral cooperation will become even more attractive through the joint efforts of our three countries' leaders, governments, and citizens." (1)

Japanese relations with both South Korea and China have had a strained and difficult past, but recent agreements and moves by the three signals that they value each other, as a cornerstone in the development of a strong and prosperous Asia.

Hatoyama, speaking at an APEC conference in Singapore in November commented at great length about the growing relations with Asian countries. He has been increasingly forward in his hopes for Asian cooperation and growing diplomatic and economic relations. He has been a leading voice on developing a more powerful East Asian community. In Singapore the Prime Minister said the following regarding relations with China and South Korea, "We should be encouraged by the fact that the ASEAN countries, China, the Republic of Korea and others have begun to play a constructive role in the region and in the entire international community while working together to promote their economic development." Hatoyama then went on to say, "United States has been playing and will continue to play an important role in ensuring the peace and prosperity of Asia, including Japan." (2)

Hatoyama, shortly after being elected even suggested that an East Asian Union be created, based on the European model. Under the proposal, Hatoyama proposed the eventual introduction of a single currency for the Union, but noted the introduction of such a Union would take time.

Huo Jiangang, a scholar studying Japanese Relations at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, "(has) listed the Korean Peninsular nuclear issue, free-trade agreements and unified currency among numerous difficulties before such a community is initiated. He also told the China Daily the following during an interview in September of 2009, "It is also hard for China and Japan to trust each other due to different value systems and fierce competition."(3)

The focus on Asia has cost Hatoyama some political capital with Obama and Washington. Hatoyama has in the past few months been busy paying lip-service to his American commitments. Hatoyama has recently said that the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-US security treaty should be viewed as an occasion to expand bilateral relations, according to an article in Tuesday's Japan Times newspaper.(4)

The current squabbling between Washington and Tokyo on the Futenma issue remains to be resolved and could hurt bilateral relations moving forward. According to a 2006 security agreement between Japan and the US, the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma located in Okinawa was scheduled to be moved Camp Schawb, also in Okinawa. However Hatoyama and his coalition government have reopened the issue, causing tensions in relations.

"The row over the base has underscored the Obama administration’s difficulties in finding common ground with Mr. Hatoyama’s slightly left-leaning Democratic Party government...Mr. Hatoyama has also seemed to pull away from Washington by allowing the Japanese Navy’s mission of refueling American warships in the Indian Ocean to end and telling Asian leaders that Japan has been overly reliant on the United States," writes Martin Fackler in a recent New York Times Article.(5)

As the Japanese government continues to examine the base issue in hopes of finding an amicable solution, officials have been stressing the importance of the US/ Japanese relationship. "Japan's diplomatic priority is to deepen its alliance with the United States, and resolving the disagreement with Washington over the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan is integral to this goal, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said in a policy speech Monday." (6)

As Japan moves to warmer relations with China and South Korea, they cannot cause serious and irreparable damage to their relationship with the current global superpower. It is obvious to many that the tide is shifting to a world increasingly run by Asian powers, but the shift will be a gradual one and will place Japan on a tight-rope for the near future. Japan has remained strong economically by being a relative mute power and Hatoyama's policy of strong statements and proposals on both sides of the fence will take a more balanced effort than he has currently provided. Domestically, Hatoyama can move away from American dominance, and remain popular at home. This of course will directly impact the defence of Japan and also could have economic consequences. Moving to a more pronounced role in Asian politics is dangerous long-term for Japan as the history of relations between Japan and China, and Japan and Korea suggests. One thing is clear; Hatoyama is engaged in a delicate balancing act, due to his Asian-centric statements and his countries commitments to American agreements.

(4) Hongo, Jun. "Budget to be government's top priority." The Japan Times 5 Jan. 2010: A2.

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