Friday, May 30, 2014

Abe Administration Wrongfoots Reporters on the Abductees Beat

Prime Minister Abe’s surprise May 29 afternoon announcement that North Korea had agreed to comprehensive survey on the abductees and specified missing persons suspected of being abducted came as a major surprise in its own right. No one, including me, had expected things to move so quickly, if at all. The surprise was compounded because

Did a breakthrough occur between the perfunctory, apparently inconclusive report to Abe from the chief negotiator in the evening on the 28th enabling the former to make that announcement? If so, the two parties moved with remarkable alacrity, with the two sides making simultaneous announcements in Tokyo and Pyongyang, the Abe administration orchestrating a carefully scripted two-part announcement, with a detailed announcement and extensive Q&A featuring Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga after the prime minister’s initial media splash. Or had the agreement actually been in place by the time that the negotiators left Stockholm but the media had been misled, leading to the initial negative reports? The latter explanation appears much more likely to me.

There’s a plausible explanation for the disconnect. There were the other two key cabinet ministers to be consulted, procedures to be followed, the families of the abductees to be notified, before the conclusions based on the phone calls and email and the negotiator’s report could be distilled into specific announcements.

That said, the public (the families, too) was misled, if only for a matter of hours, when “no comment” would have sufficed. More important to the Abe administration, the reporters covering the abductees issue, who had followed the negotiating team to Stockholm had been misled, to the benefit of the cling-on interview was conducted for the benefit of the reporters on the prime minister beat. Nothing will come of this if all goes well, but the Abe administration has narrowed its margin of error if and when things go wrong, as far as the reporters more focused on the abductees issue are concerned.


A note on the pragmatism and irony evident in the cling-on interview format that Abe administration chose for the initial announcement. The pragmatism? A cling-on interview is in theory an impromptu that can be suspended or cut off at the convenience of the interviewee, a feature that Abe’s minders surely appreciate. The irony? Many of you will remember that the first Abe administration had tried to drop the twice-a-day event that Prime Minister Koizumi had used to great effect altogether, eventually settling for a once-a-day format.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Serves the Hanshin Tigers Right for Free-Rider X-Men Tie-in

On the other hand, it’s kind of a sad commentary on Japanese baseball.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

North Korea’s Bloody Succession Offers Cover for Possible Deal on Abductees

The sometimes on-again, most times off-again talks between the Japanese and North Korean authorities are now taking place in Stockholm, and the unspoken rhetorical question again is: Will anything come of it?

If my memory serves me correctly, the deal was that the North Korea would conduct a search to see if it could come up with new information regarding the missing abductees, and Japan would ease a little bit of its sanctions. The deal appeared to fall through, the Six-Party Talks themselves went south, but the Abe administration has been trying hard to revive the Six-Party Talks side deal, North Korea for whatever reason (money? leverage against South Korea and the United States? Leverage against China? All or none of the above?) is willing to talk, and here we are.

Few people believe that the North Korean authorities have been truthful. In fact, the only thing truthful that they could be telling about the still-missing abductees is that they are dead, in which case any new information that the North Korean authorities could produce is highly likely to be worse than the dubious explanations that they have given to date. That is not all. How could they credibly explain why new, no doubt dramatically different facts have turned up after all these years? And how would they assign blame for the oversight?

The problems are compounded for the North Koreans if some of all of the abductees are alive, since there must be a good reason for keeping their presence secret all those years ago. Given the purpose of the abductions, possession of highly sensitive information concerning North Korea’s national security operations is by far the most plausible explanation, and that situation is unlikely to have changed much.

Until now. For it is my view that there is an opportunity on this occasion for the North Korean authorities to come clean, or at least come forth with a more credible story, including, if available, some actual survivors. Specifically, blame it all on Chang Song Taek, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, and other officials, named or unnamed, who were executed after Kim Jong Un inherited the dynasty. The system is opaque enough that the North Korean authorities can make its story stick as long as they can make sure that any survivors that they produce will toe the line—not so difficult to do if they now have family in North Korea.

It will still be an embarrassment for the North Korean authorities. I am worried that any asking price that they set will be too high for the Abe administration, or that they will not even be able to set one. Moreover, there is the matter of Japanese public opinion. Remember, it was the highly negative public reaction to the initial revelation that essentially forced Prime Minister Koizumi to switch to a hardline position after he returned with his entourage from his first trip to North Korea. Can the Abe administration give assurances that things will be any different this time around, if the North Korean authorities are unable to produce all, or most, of the still-missing abductees alive?

Still, there does seem to be genuine interest on the North Korean side in the process, and Prime Minister Abe’s personal commitment appears to be genuine. And North Korea’s bloody succession process can provide some coverage, assuming something actually something tangible is brought to the table. This time, I am staying tuned.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

“Self-defense” and the Past that Prime Ministers Repeat Anyway

I received a “quick” question about “[t]he stories about a new ministerial portfolio specifically to deal with the use of force issue.” I’m putting my response (lightly edited) in the public domain in the hopes that others will find it useful too.

The question may be quick, but the answer is not. Where to start and, more important, where to stop?

Every reform-minded prime minister (and even those that aren’t) tries to transcend interagency rivalries by setting up HQs, offices and what have you for his pet policy initiatives around the prime minister’s office and putting political appointees—often cabinet ministers or, quite often, himself—in charge. But when a new prime minister arrives, he is likely to have his own priorities (or may share his predecessor’s but wants to put his personal stamp on it), usually resulting in yet more what-have-yous around the prime minister’s office. Over time, they accumulate until yet another reform-minded prime minister assumes power and decides to scrape away the barnacles of initiatives past, so that he can start anew and this time get it right… 

Prime ministers do this not necessarily out of mistrust of the bureaucracy or the ministers that lead them. In this case, MOFA as an institution has always favored a strong defense posture—do not think for a moment that Ambassador Yachi is one of those ex-MOFA outliers who are startlingly and openly critical of MOFA and more generally Japan’s foreign policy—and the MOD civilians and the JSDF leadership largely lean in the same direction, although they do not like to see their budget stretched because of the expanded demands. (Which reminds me of MOF, who is the major force on the sidelines. The Ministry of Justice is irrelevant.) But someone has to set the agenda and there are so many devils in the details, so it does make sense to put someone in charge—on paper. In practice, that person, even a cabinet minister, must rely on a bureaucracy consisting mostly of career bureaucrats, mostly seconded from those very ministries until their typical two-year assignments are up, after which they go back where they came from. In the meantime, that minister cannot issue orders directly to the ministries and other agencies to comply.

The more interesting question, if Mr. Abe does decide to assign a specific portfolio, is whom he assigns it to. If he puts himself or the chief cabinet secretary in charge, it won’t mean much beyond the initial agenda-setting phase, since each has too many other things to tend to on a day-to-day basis to give proper attention to the actual implementation phase. And do not imagine that even that limited role will survive past Mr. Abe’s tenure except in name. If he assigns it to a cabinet minister without ministerial portfolio, there will be a little more action, particularly if that minister is on good terms with the MOFA and MOD ministers and he/she has true expertise, neither of which is not a given. (Thought experiment: There’s huge competence gap even between the most ardent NASCAR fan and the most incompetent NASCAR driver.) However, the guarantee of whatever effectiveness this arrangement has lasts only as long as Abe’s tenure. The most interesting twist will come if Abe decides to anoint the head of MOFA or (less likely) MOD as the minister in charge of national security. For that minister will have been set up as the senior-most of the ministers with ministerial portfolio and can bring to bear the full force of a ministerial bureaucracy that will have an institutional interest in maintaining and reinforcing its newfound institutional superiority. That is, until a new prime minister comes in—Mr. Abe will not stay on forever, even with the new miracle drugn that has restored his health—and decides to do it, you know, his/her(?) way.

PS: Actually, only two current cabinet ministers really matter on this question: Prime Minister Abe, and Akihiro Ota, the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

Next Stop on the MIGA Trail, India (featuring Narendra Modi)

My second installment on the MIGA website. (Japanese version here.) The title “Narendra Modi Will Push Parliament Hard on Reform; and He Has the Votes to Do It” speaks for itself, I hope. An overlooked piece of information that explains so much and helps us gaze into the future: Is there an underlying theme developing in my posts there? I’ll know better as the posts (hopefully) pile up.

Note: All the links to the relevant articles of the Indian Constitution were dropped when the text was transposed to the online page. For your reference, here is the source that I used.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Oi No Go? Not So Fast

Today, on May 21, the Fukui District Court handed down a decision that forbids KEPCO from restarting the nuclear power units at the Oi Nuclear Power Station. It was momentous enough to warrant an extra from the always excitable Sankei Shimbun, it seems.

But there’s less than meets the eye here. The verdict will not affect the regulatory process for the Oi units one way or the other. There’s no hurry here since they were not fast-tracked by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority, and the Osaka High Court will overturn the verdict on appeal and everything will be as if nothing had happened.

You read it hear first.

Monday, May 19, 2014

And Previously, on Abe and Modi

And here’s the text email that spawned the text for the previous post:

...someone at another wire service looked at a Kyodo wire today that said that the Abe administration was hoping that Modi would make Japan his first overseas destination and got to wondering, “Does Modi's election potentially affect the current balance of power in East Asia?”

My response:

Funny you ask that; I’d just begun to write a piece for the MIGA website that began with the sentence: “2014 has most likely been a bad year for you if you happen to be a political analyst who specializes in the states that used to form the Soviet Union”, then gone on to talk about an equally disastrous outcome for India specialists, and what we could learn from such cases. But to your question…

In a nutshell, no, at least not in ways that would be different from what we’d already been seeing, which is a gradual but limited development of the bilateral security relationship. The youth vote propelled Modi and his BJP to a lower house majority, and to fix the hidebound, stalling domestic economy. For that, he needs more trade and more investment, and he’ll welcome all comers, including China. He’ll do his best to avoid being sidetracked by issues that have no upside in that direction. There’s always been a mutual attraction between the two nations that has been mostly free of geopolitical conflict—India’s nuclear weapons program has been a sticking point, but Japan has managed to mostly get over that—and Modi does appear to have a warm relationship with the Japanese political and economic leadership that is only set to grow, but it’s doubtful that he’ll go about that in a way that would look like a deliberate snub of China.

I’m sure that Abe and his handlers would like to see Modi make Japan his first diplomatic stop, but that occasion is likely reserved for the July BRICs Summit in Brazil. So how about a pair of stops on his way back from Fortaleza, Tokyo and Seoul, then a brief chat with Xi Jinping  at Beijing Airport before he finally heads back home? Long trip, but it’s the least-controversial way of arranging the itinerary that I can think of. If it happens, remember, you read it here first.

The one wild card in my view is the possibility that the Chinese PLA might decide to test a new Modi administration’s mettle through a clash around the territorial disputes. Or, to state the matter more plausibly, any clash, deliberate or accidental, would be correctly seen as a test of the Modi administration’s mettle. That would leave the Modi administration no choicebut to step up India’s geopolitical game—reach out more forcefully to China’s frenemies (I don’t think that China has “enemies”)—if only for the sake of domestic consumption, a move that the Abe administration would welcome and respond to with efforts to further enhance security ties.

And now I have to find the time to write the MIGA post…

Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi—and Xi Jinping

My response to a query:

“I was wondering if Modi presents the US with another Abe. A popular conservative with some views (Hindu nationalist in Modi’s case) that will make America squirm, even while it tries to deepen ties to counter China?”

In a very broad sense, yes. But there are two major differences. First, the problem that the United States has with Abe is "history." Literally. So when Abe goes to Yasukuni, the Obama administration is "disappointed" because of the geopolitical repercussions. But the problem with Modi is in the here and now, specifically, his role in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, for which he is persona non grata in the United States. That's a real problem that Washington--the Obama administration and Congress--will have to resolve. Modi can't be treated like Castro.

Second, the contrast between the geopolitical implications of their conflicts with China could hardly be stronger. The standoff around the Senkaku Islands between the civil maritime services draws in a reluctant United States, the global hegemon and the region's greatest military power by far, by way of the bilateral treaty,, even as it excites the Chinese public no end (in contrast to the relatively small space that the issue occupies in the Japanese body politic). The India-China dispute is a far more serious one for the parties directly involved, given its military nature--it has spawned a land war, with sporadic clashes since--but it is a strictly bilateral dispute, with minimal geopolitical repercussions beyond the two parties involved. The BRICs Summits--a plurilateral framework spawned by a Goldman-Sachs sales pitch!; talk of life imitating art--also provide a convenient venue by which they can keep any animosity real or potential down to a manageable level.

That said, the relationship between the Chinese and Indian leadership has been relatively cordial of late (although there have been, will be, bumps along the road)and I am betting that Modi will do his best to keep it that way--BTW I also think that there will be a huge outreach to the Islamic community in his inaugural speech--while Xi Jinping would be hard put to distance himself further from Shintaro Abe than he now does. I'm sure that there are many Western liberals that blame this on his hardline stance against China. My response to that is: What hardline stance? The Abe administration is not the one setting preconditions on a bilateral summit. The Abe administration is not the one hurling invectives at its Chinese counterpart. The Abe administration is not the one moving its markers in the East (and South) China Sea.

Friday, May 09, 2014

My Thoughts around the Purported Chinese Contingency Plans for North Korean Collapse

…as leaked through a Kyodo wire that touched off a flurry of reports worldwide.

I am convinced of the authenticity of the plan; not so much its authority. Kyodo can produce some sketchy wires, but it has been around in Beijing too long to be taken in by a total fake. And people would be arrested for espionage/treason by now if the proper authorities hadn’t given a go-ahead. Besides, they—as well as South Korea, the United States and possibly even Japan—must have drafted contingency plans a couple of decades ago, when everyone thought/feared that North Korea would collapse under the weight of its economic woes. It wouldn’t hurt to update those plans from time to time. That said, you don’t know if this is the one and only legitimate plan certified by the CCP Central Committee, just one of multiple scenarios being drafted by a PLA think tank, or something in between.

What is the point of the leak? My guess is that it’s a reminder to the Kim Jong Un regime that China holds the lifeline to its survival, most likely a warning not to go ahead with a nuclear warhead test as feared. If I had to make a guess one way or the other, I would say that the North Koreans will take heed, although I have no confidence one way or the other.

Is a collapse imminent? It doesn’t look like it, but you know what they say about authoritarian/totalitarian regimes: The harder they come, the harder they fall. And it’s awfully hard to see it coming.

And the dangers of a sudden collapse? There’ll be much to do, such as managing the logistics of preventing a humanitarian disaster, avoiding armed conflict between all the players domestic and foreign, and securing control over the nuclear facilities and more generally the North Korean military. Ideally, China, South Korea and the United States would have protocols in place so that they will be able to work with each other, or at least not get in each other’s way. I’m afraid that’s probably not the case.

Japan does have some worries, such as an influx of refugees and wayward nuclear warhead or two. But the former is limited by the number of seaworthy North Korean boats, which would be swiftly impounded on arrival here, while the latter threat lacks a meaningful motive and a reliable weapons system. There will certainly be a huge bill to pay, but the Japanese government would already have had to pay at least a trillion yen or more in the event of normalized relations; this way, it would only have to pay once. 

Friday, May 02, 2014

Globaltalk MIGA, and the Impoundment of the Mitsui Cargo Vessel

I will be writing a column, hopefully regularly, for the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs (MIGA) website. My first installmenI will be writing a column, hopefully regularly, for the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs (MIGA) website. My first installment takes up “The Impoundment of the Mitsui Cargo Vessel” in China. When I first offered my take to a group of Japanese businessmen over lunch on April 26 and wrote it up later that day, it was going against the grain of virtually the entire Japanese media except Asahi (who else?), which in addition to the negative response carried the opinion of a Japanese expert who stated that the “‘[Shanghai Maritime] Court may not be seeing this case as a post-war reparation issue’ and that caution should be exercised in identifying the true intent of the Chinese side.” Unfortunately, bits and pieces of Golden Week apparently got in the way, and the draft lay in the editorial pipeline for a week, during which similar takes began emerging in the public sphere. I hope to be more topical next time.

I do intend to resume blogging, too. If you are interested, please stay tuned.