Wednesday, January 09, 2013

My Thoughts around the Delay in Prime Minister Abe’s DC Visit Wind Up in Russia

The Japanese media tells us that the White House has begged off Prime Minister Abe’s bid for a January state visit, pleading all-around busyness around the Obama reboot including the inauguration on the 21st. Nikkei speculates that it’s the Obama administration’s way of telling the Abe administration to make up its mind on the TPP negotiations. Perhaps. It’s true that it would be little more than a courtesy visit without a TPP negotiations commitment, problematic as the Japanese government’s position on agriculture may be to the Obama administration. Collective self-defense will remain under study for a while, there’ll be absolutely no movement on Futenma well past the end of any reasonable schedule for an eventual visit, and what does Obama have to gain by telling Xi Jinping, “I’m with Shinzo”? The media reports that the foreign minister is traveling to talk to State Secretary Hillary Clinton instead and the administrative senior vice minister is being dispatched to handle the state visit.

Meanwhile, Katsuhiro Kuroda Sankei’s long-time correspondent in Seoul* reports  -- the Japanese ambassador in Seoul has been bumped from the traditional second in line, behind the US ambassador, to receive an audience with the new South Korean president to third, behind the Chinese ambassador. And this, after the Abe administration downplayed the South Korean decision to refuse the Japanese request to extradite the Chinese arsonist at Yasukuni after he served his South Korean sentence for a similar incident in Seoul and allow him to return to China. (To be fair to South Korea, it was the Seoul High Court that ruled that it was a “political offense,” an act for which “[e]xtradition shall not be granted under [t]he TREATY [ON EXTRADITION BETWEEN JAPAN AND THE REPUBLIC OF KOREA,]” so the Korean government acted appropriately in denying the Japanese request.) The Abe administration had also had to take South Korea’s reportedly not-so-subtle protocol downgrade for special envoy Koshiro Nukaga in stride.

All this is unlikely to change the Abe administration’s behavior one or the other. My guess is that a further chilling of mutual relations that leads to informal boycotts is likely to disproportionately harm South Korea economically since Japanese exports are more under the hood, inside the package, behind the factory wall than the consumer goods** and services—entertainment—that at South Korea excels at. However, it will be harmful to Japan, too, and visibly at that. Besides, the United States will be highly displeased, not to mention most of the things that annoy South Koreas also annoy the Chinese, with whom the Abe administration does not want a no-holds-barred confrontation. On the other hand, there’s absolutely no reason to believe South Korea will side with Japan on the Senkaku Islands if the Japanese government yields on Takeshima and all the other history-related issues. As for North Korea, it’s first and foremost South Korea’s problem.

If there’s going to be a Japanese breakthrough at all on the Western front, it looks increasingly like it’s going to come by way of Moscow. Do we need each other or what?***

* Reminder to Japanese-reading liberals (no, I didn’t mean you): If you can get over his Sankei affiliation, Katsuhiro Kuroda is about as informed and undogmatic in his reporting as they get, though Koreans will never agree to that.

** You already know how Samsung is dominating the non-iPhone smartphone market, but did you know that South Korean instant ramen and distilled spirits command premiums in Japan and kimchee imports show no visible discounts?So much for fear of Chinese vegetables, but that’s another story.

*** No, I haven’t forgotten about you, Matt.

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