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What’s new in Japanese foreign policy under Kan?

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In Brief

At first glance, the advent of Naoto Kan to the Prime Ministership in Japan seems to promise a change in process and style rather than a fundamental shift in Japan’s foreign policy.

Kan’s shifts in process will be many, and likely effective. Kan will run a tighter ship by coordinating policy development within government, and muzzling rogue media statements by colleagues who do not have carriage of relevant policy. In the run-up to the mid-term elections, he will have the luxury of not having to stick to the immovable policy positions of coalition partners such as the Socialist Party.


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Better still, he will no longer have to tolerate the vuvuzela effect of Shizuka Kamei’s wilful interference that so maddened the government of his predecessor. Kan will also recalibrate the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats to allow more input from the latter without blurring the lines of political accountability on the part of the former.

The more interesting question to ask of the Kan administration is ‘what is not going to change’ in the foreign policy sphere.

While Kan has learned his lesson from Hatoyama’s demise and moved quickly to address the Futenma base relocation issue, he has not rolled over completely on this question. Kan is holding out on matters of detail such as the construction method that will be used in the new facility. Kan continues to voice concern over the disproportionate burden that Okinawa bears in hosting US troops. He has also noted the resentment on the part of the electorate about the cost of hosting bases, the so-called ‘omoiyari yosan’, and we should expect Kan to open talks with the US on this question sooner rather than later. It is significant that these talks will occur alongside a review of Japanese defence capabilities and planning for the new National Defence Program Guidelines, and while greater fiscal restraint is required at home.

While Kan has coined a new term to frame his foreign policy approach – ‘balanced pragmatism’ – he has maintained Hatoyama’s Asia-first diplomacy even as he insists that the Japan-US relationship is the ‘cornerstone’ of Japanese foreign policy. Under Kan the East Asia Community concept is alive and well, Economic Partnership Agreement diplomacy towards the Asian region will retain primacy, and Japanese active engagement with the global issues of climate change and nuclear non-proliferation will remain prominent. But Kan’s need to rejuvenate the economic fortunes of Japan’s regions may well set back attempts to place agriculture within ongoing FTA talks with produce-heavy countries like Australia.

Of interest in Kan’s inaugural policy speech was his inclusion of a reference to ‘the unfortunate past’ alongside the abduction issue, nuclear and missile threats as things that needed to be dealt with in normalising relations with North Korea. This reference to Japan’s war responsibility towards the Korean Peninsula will have a positive impact on both sides of the 38th parallel.

In sum, the real thrust of Kan’s diplomacy will only reveal itself after the 11 July half upper house election. At this time, we will know whether or not the DPJ needs to factor in the demands of new coalition bedfellows, and whether DPJ policy will have unimpeded passage through both houses of parliament. The bumbling of Hatoyama over Okinawa and the recent anniversary of the US-Japan alliance have intensified calls in Japan for a fundamental review of this bilateral alliance, and Kan shows every sign of wanting to address this increasingly pressing issue. But this is a matter for secure, continuing administrations, and at present Kan is only on the cusp of achieving that happy situation.

Rikki Kersten is Professor of Modern Japanese Political History at the Australian National University.

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