Monday, October 02, 2006

The New Prime Minister Bets Big on Early Summits with His Chinese and South Korean Counterparts

Negotiations are under way for a Beijing and Seoul visit by Prime Minister Abe. The latest reports say they could come as early as the 8th and 9th respectively.
There is nothing out of the ordinary about the effort to reestablish normal relations between the heads of government. The timing, and the way the Abe administration has gone about it, are.

If Mr. Abe can pull it off, he will establish himself as a bold, decisive, can-do leader and give his LDP valuable momentum as it heads into the by-elections in Osaka and Kanagawa later this month. If he can't, his administration faces the danger of losing some of that "kyushinryoku (centripetal force)" that Japanese politicians and pundits like to talk about. And when that particular brand of political power begins to dissipate, things can go deteriorate quickly, as allies of convenience begin looking for places to jump off the bandwagon and enemies begin fingering the hilts of their political knives.


The visits appear to be far from a done deal. China, predictably, does not want a repeat of the Koizumi experience over Yasukuni, and the two sides are looking for a way out of this impasse. President Roh, with less control over his South Korean constituency, would surely demand no less than his Chinese counterparts. So Yasukuni could yet be a deal-breaker. You would expect Mr. Abe to choose less daunting destinations for his initial state visits, or to forego them altogether for the time being and concentrate on establishing his mark on the home front, as the LDP and DPJ face off in the October by-elections.

The openness of the way negotiations are being conducted is a surprise as well. It's sort of like playing poker with all cards face up. You expect such a risky initiative to be conducted in secrecy, or preceded by more modest initiatives, and splashed on the front pages only when the deal is sealed. The Chinese and South Korean leadership would like to see this happen, but they have far less to lose than Mr. Abe in the event it doesn't. Thus, their hands are strengthened at the expense of Mr. Abe's by public knowledge of the negotiations.

Moreover, news reports indicate that much of this effort is being conducted outside the usual diplomatic channels. This could go along way in demonstrating the effectiveness of Mr. Abe's presidential style of administration. But it is a slap in the face of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, if not the still-powerful Mr. Foreign Minister Aso himself, and the political consequences of failure will fall directly on Mr. Abe, the chief of cabinet and the rest of the kantei. At a minimum, it will make it that much more difficult for Mr. Abe to impose his will on those within the cabinet who owe their positions less to closeness with the prime minister and more to political expediency.

So Mr. Abe faces two immediate challenges, one foreign, one domestic. One out of two won't be bad. But if he loses both, or even if he loses one (no summits) and draws in the other (one out of the two by-elections), there will be a lot of scrambling to do for the new administration less than a month after its inauguration. No wonder then, that, according to a political consultant (sorry, I know you won't like this tag, but do you want to be identified?), Mr. Koizumi has decided to put off his long vacation for while and campaign for the LDP by-election candidates (LDP Kanagawa candidate?).

One thing is for sure, though. Shinzo Abe, like Junichiro Koizumi, is a man who is not afraid of betting big. He and his supporters hope that he can also emulate his predecessor's success.

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