Monday, October 09, 2006

Prime Minister Abe Connects Deep on His First Possession. So What's the Score?

Disappointing leftish Japan watchers and the Japanese right wing alike, Prime Minister Abe has finished the Chinese leg of his trip on a most auspicious, as well as conciliatory, note. Let's take a look at its practical implications.

Q. Does this have any immediate effect on any of the issues that were covered by the summit?
A. It buys the two governments a little more time to find a way to resolve the dispute over the East China Sea gas fields. Otherwise, none. The rest of the immediate benefits are political, and mainly accrue to Mr. Abe.

Q. Let's look at the issues from a longer perspective. What about the history issue?
A. They did not reach an explicit agreement on Yasukuni. But Chairman Hu merely asked Mr. Abe to "eliminate the political obstacle (obstacles?) to China-Japan relations", and Mr. Abe told him that he would deal with the matter appropriately, explaining his policy of refraining from commenting on whether he went or not and whether he will go or not. Note the past and future tenses. All news reports I have seen so far on this issue mentioned one or the other, but not both. The question is: how does this apply to future visits/non-visits? If I had to guess, neither Mr. Abe nor Mr. Hu knows for sure. They also agreed to start the joint history study group of experts by the year's end. Textbooks? What textbooks?

Q. East China Sea gas fields?
A. "Consultation" and "joint development" are the key terms. Not that anything has changed in that respect, but the greatly improved political environment will help keep any incidents from affecting the overall bilateral relationship. It's not as if those gas fields are specifically needed to prevent electricity blackouts anyway.

Q. North Korea?
A. Mr. Abe asked Mr. Hu for Chinese cooperation on the abductees and nuclear issues, and Mr. Hu agreed to cooperate. China, of course, will do what it's gotta do regardless.

Q. Permanent UNSC membership for Japan?
A. Mr. Abe did ask, and Mr. Hu replied with a general call for dialogue on UN reform. Mr. Hu didn't say no, but, given the fundamentals (there is no expansion formula that would satisfy all five permanent UNSC members), he doesn't have to, if keeping Japan out is the objective.
Incidentally, it is noteworthy that when anybody in Japan refers to UN reform, it is usually mostly or exclusively about the Security Council. Given that that part of the package is dead in the water, it is time we focused on other UN issues.

Q. Economic issues? Energy?
A. There will be announcements down the line on joint projects. And there is an agreement in principle on a trilateral (Japan, China, South Korea) investment agreement that does not appear in the joint press release. (Maybe it's unseemly to announce it before Mr. Roh has been formally consulted.) But it is important to remember that any matters of real substance on economic issues that concern the two industrial powers will continue to be determined by three factors: 1) what businesses do on their own; 2) what the Chinese government decides to do for its own purposes; and 3) whatever the US manages to force China to do. The most importance economic consequence of the summit and its sequels is that Japanese businesses will have less to worry about over product boycotts and recruiting difficulties.

Prime Minister Abe has taken care of his potentially most vulnerable short-term foreign policy issue. He has been aided domestically by 1) the DPJ's decision to focus on the potential dangers of his ideological leanings, 2) Mr. Ozawa's decision to go AWOL during his ascendancy to the LDP presidency and Japanese premiership and his Diet debut; and 3) siccing a rambling, sometimes incoherent Mrs. Makiko Tanaka on to Mr. Abe for the Diet Q&A.

Tomorrow, the Kanagawa and Osaka by-elections begin in earnest. If the LDP wins both, Mr. Abe will have a lot of political momentum going as he pushes forward on his policy agenda. A split will remind him that political power turns on domestic issues (except when international issues hurt domestic well-being), even as the afterglow of his diplomatic breakthroughs will soften the blow.










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