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Japan Diet shows some respect for diplomacy

It has long been accepted for the Japanese prime minister and other Cabinet members to cancel official visits to foreign nations because of Diet deliberation schedules. Japan’s standing on the diplomatic stage is thus degraded, and national interests are negatively affected. Such a long-standing but wrongheaded custom must end now.

Ruling and opposition parties have agreed to allow Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto to visit four nations during the Golden Week holiday period from late this month to early next month.

Some lawmakers had called for the planned visits by the foreign minister to be canceled as they coincide with scheduled Diet deliberations on a first supplementary budget. But it has been agreed that, when Matsumoto is absent on official foreign trips, state secretaries for foreign affairs may stand in for him in Diet deliberations.

We welcome the agreement.

The prime minister and all Cabinet members have customarily been required to attend the key opening and final question-and-answer sessions for budget deliberations in the Diet. But government leaders must not be insensitive to the negative effects that resulted from sticking to the old custom, which in effect made diplomacy take a back seat.

The opposition Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito backed the approval of the foreign minister’s foreign trips this time, given their own bitter experience of having prime ministers and Cabinet minister restrained from foreign visits when they were in power. They deserve praise for their mature stance on the matter.

Taking advantage of the current agreement, the ruling and opposition parties should aim to establish new customary Diet procedures that would attach high importance to diplomacy.

Matsumoto is scheduled to leave Japan on Friday to meet U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other high-ranking officials in the United States. He then is expected to attend a foreign ministers meeting on nuclear disarmament in Germany and a follow-up meeting of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Senegal. In Belgium, he will meet the European Union trade commissioner.

These are all related to important diplomatic issues. In addition, these occasions will be a good chance for Japan to show its determination to rebuild after the Great East Japan Earthquake and become actively committed to the international community.

A number of Japanese agricultural and industrial products have been subject to import restrictions imposed by some nations that are concerned about radioactive contamination. If Matsumoto had canceled his foreign trips, it might have sent the wrong message on the impact of the disaster and further fueled the spread of harmful rumors.

In the diplomatic world, a visit by a foreign minister is treated with much higher courtesy than a visit by a state secretary for foreign affairs. The ruling and opposition parties need to share the recognition that the nation’s interests would certainly be damaged if such opportunities are discarded.

For example, Japan announced at the 2008 TICAD meeting in Yokohama that the nation would double assistance to African nations over five years and provide up to $4 billion in loans. But this kind of thing alone could be viewed as so-called checkbook diplomacy.

The nation can build relationships of trust with more than 50 nations in Africa and ensure its voice is heard only by having the Japanese foreign minister attend a ministerial meeting of the forum held every year in Africa and making finely tuned follow-up measures.

In Africa, China is aggressively providing aid in a bid to secure resources there. If Japan fails to take effective measures, its own influence will only decline.

(The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 28)
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