As a consequence of Mr. Abe’s abductions-centered North Korea policy, Japan is isolated in the six-party talks, insistent on the need for progress on the abductions issue before Japan will consider providing economic support for North Korea and normalizing bilateral relations. Relations are frayed with the US, with Washington impatient concerning cooperation on the war on terror and the lack of progress on revising Japan’s restrictions on collective-self-defense — and frustrated by the political turmoil in Tokyo. Relations with China are stable, but relations with South Korea remain frigid. Ambitious diplomatic initiatives for the region have amounted to little more than rhetoric.
Both Mr. Aso and Mr. Fukuda have insisted on their ability to reinvigorate Japanese foreign relations, with the biggest difference being on North Korea policy. Mr. Fukuda signaled today that he desires normalization with North Korea and would entertain it following progress on the nuclear and missile problems; Mr. Aso, however, would continue the Abe line, emphasizing pressure, pressure, and more pressure until North Korea caves. It’s not exactly clear what effect pressure will have on Pyongyang when the other participating countries are preparing to move ahead in cooperation with North Korea. As the US has learned with Cuba, unilateral sanctions are more or less useless in forcing a country to change its ways. And so if Mr. Fukuda means what he says, Japan might actually be ready to rejoin the six-party talks and work with the region’s other powers in achieving a workable modus vivendi for the Korean peninsula.
Meanwhile, on the Japanese refueling operation in the Indian Ocean, Mr. Fukuda has the upper hand on Mr. Aso, simply by virtue of his reputation as a compromiser. Any solution on this issue will have to involve the DPJ — and it makes good political sense too. The more conciliatory the government, the more pressure on the DPJ to cooperate (and the better to exacerbate tension within the DPJ). According, one should expect more cooperative motions from the DPJ leadership — like Mr. Hatoyama’s today suggesting that the DPJ could support actions for the peace of Afghanistan, but not military actions — as Mr. Fukuda’s premiership becomes more closer to being reality. The next prime minister will also enjoy more support from the Japanese people, as a Jiji poll has found a majority of respondents in support of extending the mission. A majority of that majority reluctantly supports the measure out of fear that US-Japan relations will worsen, which may be well suited for a more moderate Fukuda cabinet. (Fear for worsening relations is no way to conduct an alliance, but that’s a whole other discussion entirely.)
The considerable overlap between Mr. Fukuda’s and the DPJ’s foreign policy positions — on Asia policy especially — may be both good for Japan and bad for the DPJ. Fukuda’s Japan may play a more constructive role internationally, which the DPJ presumably supports, but Mr. Fukuda will make it that much more difficult for the DPJ to distinguish itself from the LDP in an election campaign.