December 19, 2008; Volume 04, Number 34

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Six-Party Talks End Without Agreement
The Dazaifu Summit: East Asia’s First Tripartite Summit
Discussion of the Senkaku-Diaoyutai Islands Dispute at the Dazaifu Summit
The “Trials of Taro” Continue in Tokyo
Concluding Comments

Good Morning. From Beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, December 19th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 34, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Back home in the regular studio for today’s program. Good to travel. But good to be back home too! A beautiful day here in South Carolina. A beautiful day for anything! Including podcast production! Warm. In the mid-seventies. Maybe a little windy for kayaking. But who has the time? Final exams are over. Grades posted. The students did quite well. Even better than I expected with their final exam essays. That’s encouraging.

In Japan, lots of tension in the political world since our last program. Japan’s national-level politicians are leading exciting lives these days. As are the political journalists who cover them. They’ll continue to do so at least until the end of this calendar year. We’ll take a brief look at that in a moment. First, though, let’s shift our attention to international affairs. With a look at the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s Nuclear Program, and the tripartite East Asian summit held in Dazaifu, Fukuoka, last Saturday.

Six-Party Talks End Without Agreement

As we – and most everyone else – expected, the Six Party Talks in Beijing ended with no progress toward agreement. Talks began on Monday, the 8th, and ended on Thursday, the 11th. One can only sympathize with the representatives of all countries involved. Having to sit through an exercise that everyone realized was doomed to failure from the outset.

As we discussed last time, agreement broke down over the means of verifying the information North Korea provides on its de-nuclearization program. With disputes between U.S. and North Korean representatives about earlier oral agreements at the core of the problem. U.S. representatives insisted that North Korea had agreed on sampling. With samples to be examined in laboratories abroad. North Korean representatives disagreed, and refused to accept that language in the final written agreement.

Not really a surprise for most observers. Why should North Korea agree to a deal now? With governments of other countries scheduled, or likely, to change in the near future? Why not wait to see if incoming administrations in the U.S. and Japan will be more accommodating? Willing to give more for less. Which is just what North Korea did. All as expected.

So, Japan’s media has been full of reports on the failure, or break-down, of the talks. That too was expected. But maybe it’s worth thinking a bit more about. Was the latest round of Six-Party talks in Beijing really a failure for Japan? Maybe not. Indeed, it might be argued that Japan’s interests were upheld during the talks in Beijing! By the very failure of the four-day gathering to produce an agreement.

If the negotiators had reached some agreement in Beijing this time, it almost certainly wouldn’t have required written guarantee of reliable verification procedures. Something Japan has officially and unofficially demanded. Strongly demanded! Ever since the United States and North Korean negotiations a while back. The ones that led Washington to take North Korea off the state terrorism sponsor list.

As we discussed on the last program, representatives of South Korea, the U.S. and Japan agreed beforehand they would all demand written agreement on an acceptable verification protocol. To avoid any possible misunderstanding, doncha know.

This frustrated North Korea’s plan to isolate Japan in the Six-Party negotiation process. Still, the North Korean delegation refused to meet separately with the Japanese delegation. At least, officially. Insisting Pyongyang no longer considered Japan a legitimate party to the negotiations! Because Japan refused to provide North Korea with energy aid without Pyongyang providing more information about the people they’ve snatched off Japanese beaches over the years.

Well, North Korea’s strategy didn’t work. Japan wasn’t the only member of the Six-Party negotiations demanding written assurance of reliable verification! Sooo, the negotiations have been delayed yet again. Giving time for a new administration to occupy the White House in Washington. And possibly a new cabinet in Tokyo. Administrations North Korea hopes will be more accommodating and conciliatory. In the meantime, the U.S. was rumored to be considering putting North Korea back on the terrorist sponsor list. A rumor Washington later denied. But State Department officials have said, on the record, that they don’t intend to provide energy aid to North Korea without agreement on written verification. That can’t be good news for Pyongyang at the moment.

Japan’s media hasn’t reported any of this as a victory for Japanese diplomacy. But it surely is. We’ll have to wait to see what happens between now and the next convocation of the Six Parties for formal negotiations. Which could take a while. But in the meantime, Japan is hardly “isolated.” I’ll try to keep you posted.

The Dazaifu Summit: East Asia’s First Tripartite Summit

Not all has been gloomy, however, in Japan’s conduct of international relations. Saturday, December 13th, was an important event in the history of East Asian diplomatic relations. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak joined Japan’s Prime Minister Taro Aso for East Asia’s first tripartite summit meeting. In Dazaifu, Fukuoka. This was the first summit meeting among the leaders of the three countries. That is, the first summit that wasn’t arranged on the sidelines of a larger meeting. That’s significant. Especially during a time when ASEAN, a long-established Asian regional forum, hasn’t been able to put together a meeting of their own for a while.

First, it seems to me significant that China and South Korea were willing to accept Prime Minister Aso’s invitation. That they agreed to allow Japan to host what the three leaders in their post-conference press conference described as their first tripartite summit meeting. Japanese prime ministers have been proposing a tripartite summit for more than a decade. But until now they’ve met with Chinese, and South Korean, reluctance. Partly due to concern over North Korea’s reaction. So, it was one thing for Japan to offer to host the first meeting. But quite another for the other two to accept Japan’s invitation. Especially an invitation extended by a man known for his – ah …, ‘pragmatic’ – attitude toward Beijing. So, this meeting would have to be considered a success even if it ended with only the usual generalized platitudes about cooperation and brotherly love. It ended with more than that, however. Progress!  

Second, Prime Minister Aso selected the southern Japanese city of Dazaifu as the site of the meeting. Aso, of course, represents a nearby electoral district in Fukuoka. In addition, the Dazaifu Summit was held very near the site of the two earlier Chinese efforts to invade Japan. The first in late 1274, and the second in late June, 1281. Events the Chinese side would certainly remember. Given the significance they place on history. Prime Minister Aso, fortunately, refrained from mentioning those two Chinese invasion efforts. Nor did he demand an apology from his Chinese guests. Let alone reparations! Again, progress!

I encourage those of you who have yet to visit Dazaifu, Fukuoka, to do so as soon as you can. It’s a beautiful place. Be sure to allow time to visit both the Kyushu National Museum and the nearby Kyushu Historical Museum. I’ll try to remember to put links to their websites in the program transcript. Then see as many of that remarkable city’s other historical sites as you can. It’s well worth at least a week or two of your time.

Judging from the post-meeting press conference, and the formal statements agreed upon, the Dazaifu Summit accomplished more than a ritualistic exchange of pleasantries. First, they agreed that this Dazaifu meeting would be the first in an annual series of such meetings. With China hosting next year’s gathering. Second, they agreed it was high time that their three countries cooperated more effectively in the face of the international financial crisis. Mentioning the importance of recent bilateral currency swap agreements among the three countries. They also promised cooperation to promote free trade. And successful conclusion of the WTO’s Doha Development Agenda. As well as more effective cooperation in the area of regional disaster management. Short on specifics. But a nicely rounded agenda for cooperation.

Discussion of the Senkaku-Diaoyutai Islands Dispute at the Dazaifu Summit

There’s something else about the meeting that I consider significant. That is the frank exchange of views between Japan and China over an important territorial dispute. The Senkaku Islands, as they’re known in Japanese. Or the Diaoyutai Islands, as they’re called by the Chinese. This unimpressive outcropping of rock comprises eight separate islands. All together they amount to only about 6 square kilometers. And they’re uninhabited. Japan and China have been arguing over sovereignty of those islands for over a century. It’s a complex issue. Nobody cares much about the rocks themselves. But everyone’s concerned about what sovereignty over the rocks means for the surrounding sea! Discovery of energy resources nearby has intensified the dispute more recently. An issue we’ve considered from time to time on this program.

Just a few days before the leaders of Japan, China, and South Korea left their capitals for Dazaifu, an incident stirred interest in the Senkaku Islands once again. On December 8th, around 8:00 in the morning, the Monday before the Summit, Japan’s Coast Guard discovered two Chinese ships in Japanese territorial waters. Close to the Senkaku Islands. The Coast Guard warned them off repeatedly, demanding they leave. But the ships continued steaming around until around 5:30 p.m. the same day. Not doing anything but showing the flag, it seems.

Japanese news reports noted this was the first such incursion by China since 2004. And even more of a surprise, given the summit meeting planned for the end of the week. But Tokyo remained calm, allowing the Coast Guard to observe and caution. Without calling out Navy vessels to chase the Chinese ships out of Japanese territory. Instead, Tokyo directed a sharp formal protest to Beijing. And told Japan’s press and public what was happening as it was happening.

On Tuesday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected Japan’s protest. Reminding assembled journalists that the proper name for the islands in question is Diaoyutai, not Senkaku. And that they’ve been Chinese territory since time immemorial. Therefore, Japan’s protests were without merit. The ships were operating in waters China recognized as Chinese territory. Just routine survey work. That’s all.

Well, obviously that wasn’t all. It seemed that China – or someone, or some organization in China – wished to raise the temperature of the Senkaku-Diaoyutai territorial dispute on the eve of the historical Dazaifu Summit. Could it have been intended to create more tension in the bilateral relationship?

Well, the issue was discussed. Prime Minister Taro Aso raised it with Premier Wen Jiabao during their hour-long one-on-one meeting Saturday. On the sidelines of the Dazaifu conference. According to press reports published immediately thereafter, Aso told Wen that the intrusion was unfortunate and had the potential to damage relations between Japan and China. Wen responded that China considered the islands to be Chinese territory. Therefore the presence of Chinese ships was no problem at all. And, China hoped to discuss the issue of sovereignty of the region with Japan some time in the future.

This, for me, was encouraging. We’ve often considered Japan’s relations with China on this program. And noted the exaggerated emphasis on symbolic issues, at the expense of substantive discussions. In years past, Japan’s leaders have hesitated to present Japan’s diplomatic objectives to Beijing in a straightforward fashion. Fearing the Chinese side would “take offense,” and suspend negotiations. Recognizing that should this happen, most of Japan’s media would describe the exchange as a failure of the incumbent prime minister to “maintain friendly relations” with Beijing.

This pattern of interaction maintained a façade of friendly bilateral relations between China and Japan. But at the same time it limited genuine progress on substantive bilateral disagreements. Some realistic negotiations were possible behind the scenes, hidden from the press corps, and from Japan’s attentive public. But genuinely important issues couldn’t be handled that way.

The handling of the Senkaku-Diaoyutai incident on the sidelines of the Dazaifu Summit was quite different. Prime Minister Aso clearly presented Japan’s position. Premier Wen clearly presented China’s position. In public. And, most important of all, this difference of positions on an important issue was not allowed to destroy – or even overshadow – the accomplishments of the Summit meeting. That’s all to the good, I think. There are some important differences of national interest between Japan and China that must be faced in the future. Perhaps this important bilateral relationship has matured to the point that they now can be discussed in the open. Let’s hope, anyway. I’ll try to keep you posted.

The “Trials of Taro” Continue in Tokyo

The “Trials of Taro” that we considered last week have continued. Continued, and, if possible, intensified. Prime Minister Aso still presents a jaunty, self-confident image in public. And, when asked, continues to reply that he’s unfazed by the political winds swirling around him. But if he really does remain confident of his ability to make it through this trying time, he’s about the only one in Tokyo now holding that view.

By yesterday, Thursday, polls from all of the major media companies reported that public approval of Prime Minister Aso and his cabinet had dropped to around 20 percent. Some even lower! While his disapproval rating rose well above 60 percent. We’ve discussed the decline in Prime Minister Aso’s public approval ratings repeatedly on this program. Giving deserved credit to the blatant anti-Aso bias of Japan’s major media. But then concluding that media bias can’t account for it all. And have looked for determinants in Taro Aso’s performance as prime minister. We’ve found a few!

On the last program I mentioned appointment of Yoshinobu Shimamura as a prime ministerial assistant. By the LDP! With instructions to improve Aso’s relationship with Japan’s skeptical press corps. I’ve seen nothing in Japan’s political press since about Shimamura’s appointment or activities. But I have noticed some change in Prime Minister Aso’s behavior at press conferences. He seems to be trying to be more genial toward the journalists who cover him. Or, at least, less openly hostile. Trying to hold his tongue. Trying not to be so snippy. There’s also been a decline in the number of verbal “gaffes” reported by the media’s Gaffe Patrol. A few here and there. But the Patrol seems to have slimmer pickings lately. Meaning lately they’ve had to try to make more out of less useful material.

Will any of this help? True, it hasn’t been long since Shimamura’s appointment, and Aso’s renewed efforts to be more cooperative with the press corps. But there’s blessed little evidence of progress. At least that I’ve seen. And I’ve been watching for it! Aso’s public approval ratings continue to decline. The media continues to hammer away. And that’s not all. Not even the most important! During the past week, more and more open complaints have erupted from within the LDP itself over Aso’s handling of the premiership. Not anonymous mumblings, now. Individuals and groups speaking directly to the press, convening meetings at LDP Headquarters, and so on.

Now, that’s serious! And everyone recognizes it as such. An indication that most everyone in the LDP realizes the Party has a serious problem. One that’s unlikely to smooth out on its own, over time. That something needs to be done to correct it. If not, the LDP is likely to face serious defeat in the next general election. And, defeat at the hands of a Party that’s barely functional. On its best days. Headed by an individual who’s almost as unpopular with Japan’s press corps as Aso himself! Not much of an adversary under normal conditions. But these are far from normal times!

Japan’s political journalists seem to have scented blood. For the past week or so they’ve been publishing articles that focus attention on the LDP’s problems of internal cohesion. About time! Unfortunately, though, many of those articles, especially those written by the most experienced and best informed political journalists, continue to focus their analysis on tensions among the LDP’s factions. The LDP’s long-standing factions certainly remain important actors within the LDP. But I think we need to look elsewhere to understand what’s really going on.

Since the beginning of this program I’ve presented the clash between Traditionalists and Reformists as the most important cleavage within Japanese politics today. More important than competition among the various LDP factions. Distinct from, and more important than, Governmentalist – Marketonian differences. More important, that is, in likely influence on Japan’s political party system. I haven’t seen anything during the past few months to change my mind.

Since last weekend, LDP Reformist leaders have been openly criticizing Prime Minister Aso’s management of the government. Even openly threatening to leave the Party if things don’t change. Traditionalist LDP leaders have responded with sharp criticism of the complaining Reformists. Accusing them of contributing to the decline in Prime Minister Aso’s public approval ratings. Suggesting, even, that the Reformists leave the LDP if they are so dissatisfied. And threatening to field “assassin” candidates against them if they do. Hmmm. That doesn’t seem too wise, given current conditions. But it’s clear that two quite different groups have emerged within the LDP. Two groups with quite different perceptions of the LDP’s current problems. And quite different prescriptions for managing those problems. The Traditionalists still dominate the Party structure. But increasing numbers of LDP Diet members have publicly identified themselves as Reformists. Quite a challenge for poor Prime Minister Taro Aso.

Concluding Comments

Well, we’ve reached our target time for this program. So let’s end here. We’ll continue to consider the significance of the tension between the LDP’s Traditionalists and Reformists next time. Perhaps, even, with the opportunity to look at significant developments. So,

Goodbye all. Until next time.