The DPJ’s unheralded realism

In the latest stop in his regional tour, Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya visited Australia for talks with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith.

Most of the headlines have focused on the exchange of words over whaling — the polite phrasing seems to be that Okada and Rudd had a “frank discussion”, and Rudd has threatened to sue Japan if it does not halt whaling by November — but more important in the long term may be the agreement reached between the two governments to sign an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) in March, which would enable mutual logistical support on peacekeeping and disaster relief missions. The ACSA will be another small step in building an Australia-Japan security relationship following the joint security declaration signed in 2007 back when Abe Shinzo was prime minister.

Writing at The Interpreter (and from the Australian perspective), Graeme Dobell writes of Australia’s hedging by building up its relationship with Japan over the span of a decade, noting that “It is not grand enough to be called a strategy. It does not yet have the status or coherence of a policy. Yet it is much more than an inclination or intention. Call it low-level hedging.” One could very well say the same of Japan.

Despite the impression in some circles that the Hatoyama government is naive (due perhaps in part to Hatoyama’s talk of an East Asian community) — and the irritating habit that some analysts have of dichotomizing Japan’s foreign policy choice as being either alliance with the US or partnership with China — the Hatoyama government is deliberately working to improve Japan’s bilateral ties throughout the region. In the span of weeks, Prime Minister Hatoyama has visited India to, among others, agree to regular bilateral security talks and Okada has visited South Korea and Australia to discuss how to bolster Japan’s relationships with both countries. What was notable about both Okada trips is that he did not hesitate to acknowledge the obstacles to closer bilateral ties even as he expressed his beliefs that the obstacles can be overcome. Before he had his discussion about whaling in Australia, on his visit to South Korea Okada acknowledged in strong terms Japan’s wrongdoing when it colonized Korea 1910-1945. In both cases, Okada is clearly trying to address the obstacles forthrightly while remaining focused on the goals of closer bilateral cooperation.

In bilateral relations with India, South Korea, and Australia (not to mention China), the Hatoyama government is building on the work of its LDP predecessors. What’s different, however, is that the Hatoyama government is for the most part building its new grand strategy on the sly. Unlike say the Abe government, which used grandiloquent rhetoric about democracy and shared values to announce its bilateral initiatives with Australia and India (and was none too subtle about the links between among these three democracies and the US), the Hatoyama government has been workmanlike in its efforts to improve Japan’s bilateral ties. There are few hints that it wants to link its bilateral ties with countries like Australia to its alliance with the US, which would in turn prompt talk of a grand alliance aimed at containing China. Instead, the Hatoyama government may be focusing on new bilateral relations as a hedge against the US. In the event that the US were to turn inward and weaken its commitment to Asia, Japan could use other friends in the region. Even with the US committed to the region, Japan’s interests are served by better bilateral ties, which have been underdeveloped for too long.

That there are significant obstacles — Australia’s threat of a lawsuit, for one — to overcome in nearly all of Japan’s bilateral relationships in the region should not detract from appreciation of the Hatoyama government’s efforts to overcome those obstacles. Its foreign policy initiatives may be quiet, but they will have implications for Japan’s position in the region for years to come.

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