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Japan's unsurprising silence on the Asia-Pacific Community

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In Brief

When Kevin Rudd gave his first speech on the Asia-Pacific Community (APC) in June last year, he would have been forgiven for thinking his call for a new regionalism would have been echoed by Japan.

Rudd and his advisors should not take Japan’s relative silence on APC to heart. Unlike Singapore, Japan’s silence should surprise nobody.

Japan and Australia are typically seen as natural partners in the Asian region, and in foreign policy, Japan and Australia’s aims, particularly with regard to regional institutions and to the future shape of the world affairs, are similar. And, of course, APEC was significantly the product of Australian-Japanese cooperation.

So why is Japan keeping so quiet on this front?

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Most immediately, Japan is suffering from a pronounced leadership deficit. While Fukuda had some creative foreign policy ideas [.pdf], leadership after Koizumi has been inconsistent and unstable. Following their disastrous performance in the Tokyo metropolitan elections, things do not look at all good for Aso and the LDP in the upcoming general election and there is a widespread feeling that, no matter what, the DPJ will win government.

Sceptics say that, should the DPJ win, Hatoyama’s plan for a centralised, cabinet-led ‘national strategy bureau’ will lead to antagonism in the policy making process rather than reform. This is to say nothing of inter- and intra-ministry rivalries, which – in the case of METI and MOFA especially – have frequently proved detrimental to Japan’s foreign policy coherence over the last decade.

Even if Japan’s political leadership was certain, and its ministries committed to regional goals, it’s still an open question as to whether they would back an initiative like APC.

The Japanese economy has suffered the worst downturn since the Second World War, shrinking by a monumental annual rate of 15.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2009.

Some may be optimistic about the path through the crisis – especially if, as in hedge fund parlance, slightly down is the new up – but nobody in Japan is forecasting the end yet. All is not well on the home economic front.

Significantly, many in Japan feel it already has ‘enough on its plate’. North Korea’s rocket tests and the reality of North Korea’s nuclear program are more alarming to the Japanese public than perhaps anyone.

Right now, Japan’s political leadership is now devoting all its time and energy to the election. In the medium term, the dominant foreign policy issue that will demand its attention is the North Korean issue.

The other concern, of course, is the rise of China, and what this means for Japanese interests, regionally and globally. Bilateral and multilateral co-operation between Japan and China has taken a small turn for the better with the activation of the trilateral dialogues with South Korea, but the propensity to descend into zero-sum bilateral exchanges is still evident.

With Northeast Asia taking up so much time and attention, spending time, energy, and political will trying to re-invent regional institutions has simply not been on the agenda, especially when those institutions, rightly or wrongly, are not perceived as being aimed directly at tackling proximate issues surrounding China or North Korea’s continued aggression.

If Japan had any time to spend on a new regionalism, as Takashi Terada says, the present priority would instinctively be pushing for ASEAN+6, Japan’s rival to ASEAN+3.

Put simply, Japan is not in a position to take leadership on regional initiatives, particularly ambitious, pan-regional moves like the APC. With Singapore unconvinced and Japan otherwise engaged, Prime Minister Rudd and Ambassador Woolcott still have some legwork to do on the APC.

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