Sunday, January 06, 2013

Taro Aso’s New Year’s Trip; Plus, the Northern Territories

The Japanese working year traditionally begins on January 4 unless it falls on the weekend, in which case the year begins on the following Monday. But there was Taro Aso, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance in the Abe cabinet, in Myanmar for a January 2-4 visit.

There’s nothing odd about this when you look at it from their end; the Burmese New Year’s Day falls on April 17. But this accommodation of the Myanmar government’s work schedule, with a visit from a former prime minister at that, looks like a robust endorsement of a government moving away from authoritarianism bordering on totalitarianism towards democracy and from dependence on China to more balanced relations with the rest of the world. The “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” associated with the first Abe administration all but demands it. Less remembered is the role Aso, as foreign minister, played in airing the concept with this 2006 speech. Abe and Aso probably having been getting their cues on this from the more capable MOFA officials, most importantly Shotaro Yachi, the administrative MOFA vice minister during the first Abe administration, who is now one of the special assistants to the prime minister. So now you know where to look for clues as to where the second Abe administration is going.

Speaking of Aso, you may recall that he was the foreign minister who prematurely aired a 50-50 territorial split for a Northern Territories end game back in the day. The longer-term market for natural gas looks soft and President Putin would like to cut a deal with Japan as a non-threatening partner for developing Russia’s Far East. In February, his judo buddy, the former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, will visit him to figure out exactly what he means by hikiwake, the judo word for draw, on the Northern Territories. Those godforsaken islands are a relatively recent acquisition for Russia; likewise for Meiji Japan. And there is relatively little “history” between us, unlike with China or the Koreas. And Shinzo Abe, like Nixon with China, is the one politician who could sell something between all and nothing to Japanese conservatives. The Abe administration can surprise me, and disappoint liberals who think that he’s nuts, with a Big Deal.

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