Foreign Policy Blogs

Noda Steps Back From East Asia

We are now just about a week into the Noda administration and a new foreign policy landscape is beginning to take shape. We have a clearer picture of PM Noda’s stance on Futenma; a commitment not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine;  and a better sense of his personal politics, what might be called “moderate nationalism.”

And now we have this, via today’s Yomiuri Shimbun:

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has indicated the plan for an “East Asian community” envisioned by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama will not be a priority of his administration, in an essay to be published in a monthly magazine.

Referring to the nation’s immediate diplomatic tasks, Noda wrote, “We do not have to set out a grand vision, such as [the creation of] an East Asian community, for now.”

Apparently referring to territorial disputes with countries such as China and South Korea, Noda emphasized the need for Japan to be prepared for emergencies involving its territories and territorial waters. Simulation exercises should be conducted to determine what course of action Japan should take in such situations, Noda wrote.

Not to read too much into an article that I haven’t fully examined, but these statements, if acted upon, set exactly the wrong tone for Japan’s diplomacy. More than simply marking a step back from the lofty “grand vision” put forward by former PM Yukio Hatoyama (and to a lesser extent Katsuya Okada and Ichiro Ozawa), this break with the Asianist project would do much to isolate Japan during a time when it needs nothing more than regional engagement. Such a reversal would only work to Japan’s detriment.

While a case could be made that this vision marks a re-affirmation of the US-Japan Alliance, this reading fails to grasp the realities and opportunities of the Asia-Pacific, and the US position within it. East Asian engagement is not a zero-sum game: Japan can and should strive to work with all of its regional partners. Alliance aside, to publicly step back from the East Asian community achieves nothing. It is the diplomatic equivalent of Kanye West’s VMA moment.

If anything, this position only serves to draw further attention to the regional frictions that were brought to the fore by Mr. Noda’s views of history. Its one thing to quietly dismantle the architecture of this initiative within the Foreign Ministry and other co-operating agencies. It is another altogether to publish it for all to see.

There is no denying the gravity of the domestic tasks sitting before Mr. Noda. He and his cabinet have much to do, and must get to work fast. But turning inwards during this process as Mr. Noda’s comments suggest will only add to this load. Japan needs technology swaps and academic exchange programs. It needs high level dialogues and transparent military communications. It needs access to new revenue streams and markets. To go it alone during a time of difficulty is natural. It is also short-sighted and potentially damaging.

If, as Mr. Noda writes, “in the course of power shifts, discord and strife is likely to emerge,” it is in Japan’s best interests to at least be actively engaged with all of the regional stakeholders. Stepping back from East Asia will only make managing this strife and discord all the more difficult.

Perhaps Mr. Noda’s arguments are more nuanced than the Yomiuri piece paints them. I certainly hope so.

(H/T Toshugu)