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[Letter to the Editor] Japan’s thorny relations with neighbors

Japan’s relations with its immediate neighbors have taken a drastic dip in recent times. One major problem is the disputed territorial claims that Japan faces with China, South Korea and Russia.

Japan controls Senkaku Islands (Diaoyutai in Chinese), a chain of islands also claimed by China and Taiwan. In early September 2010, Japanese patrol boats clashed with a Chinese fishing trawler near the islands in the Sea of Japan and apprehended its captain for trespassing “Japanese waters.”

Two months later, Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev visited one of the Kurile Islands. This infuriated Japan so much that Tokyo summoned home its ambassador to Moscow. The Southern Kuriles, called the Northern Territories in Japan, are under Russian control and have been at the heart of a dispute between the two nations since the end of World War Two.

Then in January 2011, the Japan Coast Guard arrested a captain of a South Korean fishing boat for entering the disputed waters near Dokdo in the East Sea. The islets, known as Takeshima in Japan, are under South Korea’s control and have been a thorn in Japan-South Korea relations.

While the Takeshima incident did not lead to major retaliation, the same can’t be said of the Senkaku one. China vehemently opposed the detention and demanded a prompt return of its national.

Unlike in the past, today’s China is more assertive and is capable of doing more than summoning Japan’s ambassador to Beijing in protest. Following the trawler incident, China not only summoned its ambassador but postponed scheduled talks with Japan on joint energy exploration in the East China Sea, suspended high-level exchanges with Japan and called off talks on aviation issues.

To further put pressure on Tokyo to release the captive, Beijing refused to meet Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan on the sidelines of an ASEAN+3 Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, and abruptly blocked the export of rare earth materials to Japan. Some speculated that the arrest of four Japanese nationals by the Chinese authorities on suspicion of being spies was a tit-for-tat.

On the Kuriles, President Medvedev’s historical visit marked the first time for a Russian leader to set foot on a disputed island. It signified that Russia is not backing down despite Japan’s demands.

In fact, Medvedev has called for an improvement in weaponry and infrastructure to better secure the Southern Kuriles ever since Tokyo rejected Moscow’s offer for a joint economic zone on the islands.

The message is clear. All three countries are not succumbing to Japan’s assertions and China and Russia have become bolder in staking their claims.

Some observers are blaming Japan’s weak and inconsistent foreign policy for the escalation of tensions. Others see Japan’s neighbors taking advantage of a weak Japanese government.

After years of maintaining a pro-U.S. policy, Japan decided to break away and craft a more independent foreign policy. Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama spoke of a declining U.S. epoch and sought to shift Japan’s foreign policy closer to East Asia.

Hatoyama promoted his East Asian Community idea and tried to get his counterpart Chinese President Hu Jintao on board. He wanted to place Japan and China at the core of regional cooperation, the way that France and Germany did for the EU. Hatoyama thought that Japan would be better positioned regionally if it started recognizing China’s weight and saw the plan as a means to reconcile the various outstanding issues including the territorial disputes.

The Futenma Air Base issue in Okinawa was the litmus test. Hatoyama had to show that Japan could stand up to the U.S. but negotiations to remove the base failed miserably. The only thing left for him was the exit door.

His successor, Kan, has since taken a more moderate approach. With its neighbors asserting their claims even more rigorously, Japan is in a weak position to bargain with the U.S.

The lack of transparency in Beijing’s militarization programs, increased tensions on the Korean Peninsular and Moscow’s $650 billion rearmament plan further compound the problem.

At home, Kan’s approval rating has dropped to as low as 19 percent according to the Mainichi Shimbun. He has also been chided by the opposition Liberal Democratic Party for giving in to China’s demands by releasing the captain. And now Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara’s resignation over illegal donations will further exacerbate the already beleaguered government.

Japan will have little choice but to depend on the U.S. for security protection. The U.S. earned China’s wrath when it spoke of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as its national interest. It irked China again when it offered itself as a mediator in the Senkaku issue. Russia was annoyed as well when a news report mentioned that the U.S. supports Japan’s claim of the Northern Territories.

Reverting back to the U.S. for shelter may bring some relief and buy Japan time to get its house in order including taming its right-wingers. But it will unlikely solve Japan’s external woes. An active U.S. involvement in the region’s geopolitical affairs risks overshadowing Japan’s hard-earned regional position and creating a backlash from neighbors who are not keen to see the U.S. butting in.

Japan has already lost some of the limelight to China. Today, China is the world’s second largest economy, surpassing Japan in terms of GDP. Politico-militarily, China is commanding a bigger attention from its neighbors.

With Hatoyama’s plan gone down with him, Tokyo will need to devise a better plan to resolve the historical disputes and will need to do so promptly before its power further erodes or be forever under the U.S. wings.

By Benny Teh Cheng Guan

Benny Teh teaches international relations at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, Malaysia. He obtained his doctoral degree from Kanazawa University in Japan. ― Ed.
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