Fukuda’s "catch ball" diplomacy

Fukuda Yasuo is in China, and the contrasts, both with his earlier trip to Washington and Ozawa Ichiro’s trip to China, are stunning, if not surprising.

Recall how earlier this month I criticized Mr. Ozawa for his over-the-top visit to Beijing, when he traveled with an entourage of hundreds and spoke in effusive terms about the Sino-Japanese relationship.

I think Mr. Fukuda has made my point about understated diplomacy. Without paying fealty and genuflecting before his Chinese hosts, the prime minister has indicated that he desires a new Sino-Japanese relationship that is treated with as much or greater care as Japan’s relationship with the US.

Unlike his thirty-six-hour swing into Washington, Mr. Fukuda has stayed around long enough to make an impression. He met with Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, on Friday afternoon, with the talks focused more on practical matters — economic cooperation, the environment, the “strategic reciprocal partnership” — than on praising the relationship. On Friday evening, Mr. Fukuda met with President Hu Jintao, in which he explicitly said that Japan does not support Taiwanese independence but rejects a unilateral solution to the problem.

On Saturday, Mr. Fukuda played catch with Mr. Wen. (I will not comment on what that might have looked like after seeing pictures of the two old men in throwing position here.) The symbolism of this should not be underestimated. Playing catch, after all, is one of the oft-cited bonds that united President Bush and former Prime Minister Koizumi. (They played catch at Mr. Bush’s ranch when first meeting in June 2001.) What a pointed but understated way for Mr. Fukuda to signal to Washington that Japan’s priorities are changing, an argument Mr. Fukuda made explicitly when he visited Washington in November.

For the moment, concrete progress on disputed issues is beside the point. This is mood-setting, with its significance depending on Mr. Fukuda’s staying around long enough to convert preliminary overtures into a lasting shift in Japanese foreign policy that will bind his successors. But the mood-setting is necessary. Japan is not in a position to choose between Beijing and Washington. It needs frank but cordial relations with both, although the two relationships are obviously different thanks to Japan’s security relationship with the US. I remain unconvinced that grandiose rhetoric, which hints at a desire to prioritize the Sino-Japanese relationship to the detriment of the US-Japan relationship, is the way to change the mood in the Sino-Japanese relationship; by going to Beijing more quietly but no less determined to revive the relationship, Mr. Fukuda has, I think, embarrassed Mr. Ozawa yet again.

Now if he could only get certain US presidential candidates to realize that just as Japan has no choice between its largest trading partner and its most significant security partner, so the US has no choice but to maintain healthy relationships with both its long-time ally and trading partner and the emerging power.

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