When the Democratic Party of Japan swept to power in the August 2009 Lower House election, it brought with it plans for a new foreign policy, one based on building strong relationships with Japan's East Asian neighbors.
Those plans are all but a memory now as diplomatic tensions with the two major players in the region appear to be spiraling out of control, due in part to the DPJ's own history of wavering policies.
Relations with South Korea have been hurtling toward a new low since President Lee Myung-bak's Aug. 10 visit to the disputed Takeshima islets. At the same time, efforts by the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to avoid a diplomatic row with China over the landing of five Hong Kong activists on the Senkaku Islands could fail to prevent future incidents.
For the moment, the Noda administration is taking a much stronger stand against Seoul.
On Aug. 17, the government decided to propose to South Korea jointly submitting a case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the territorial dispute related to the Takeshima islands. That day, Noda told reporters, "I hope South Korea will appear before the court." He later criticized Lee's remarks and actions over the past days as regrettable and also sent a letter to Lee informing him of Japan's ICJ proposal.
However, South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued a statement that said the proposal was "not worthy of any consideration."
While both Japan and South Korea had sought to construct a future-oriented relationship, it will not be easy to repair the damage done over the past week.
Akihisa Nagashima, a special adviser to Noda on diplomacy, said, "While the DPJ government has racked up various achievements, I cannot believe that the bilateral relationship will continue as in the past in light of recent actions (by the South Korean president)."
The prime minister is also taking a harder stance on the Senkaku Islands. The Noda Cabinet held its first meeting of relevant ministers to address the issue on Aug. 17, the same day a group of Hong Kong activists who had landed on the islands were eventually deported.
At the meeting, Noda said, "It is very regrettable that they encroached on Japanese territorial waters and landed on Uotsurishima island."
In a meeting with lawmakers at the Prime Minister's office, Noda said, "I want to handle issues related to national sovereignty with unwavering resolve, even at the risk of my political future."
While the quick deportation was meant to defuse a potentially explosive diplomatic issue, Noda has also not backed down from his decision to have the central government assume ownership of the islands.
A high-ranking official in the department of the Chinese Communist Party that handles Japanese affairs said, "With Noda's concerns over the domestic political situation, we do not see any desire on his part to look at the overall picture of the Sino-Japanese relationship."
In a sense, the latest diplomatic problems are only the most recent manifestation of the wavering course the DPJ has followed ever since it came to power.
When Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister of a Liberal Democratic Party government, he once said, "If Japan's relationship with the United States alone is on a good course, ties with other nations will also work out."
During his time as prime minister, Koizumi continued to visit Yasukuni Shrine on an annual basis despite strong criticism from neighboring countries. The shrine is controversial because it honors 14 Class-A war criminals along with Japan's war dead.
In sharp contrast, when Yukio Hatoyama became the first DPJ prime minister, he set out a proposal for building an East Asian community on the basis that anything was possible as long as Japan cooperated with its Asian neighbors.
And while there were some early expectations from China and South Korea for a possible change in course, Hatoyama was eventually forced out of office after provoking U.S. criticism over his proposal to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma outside of Okinawa Prefecture.
His successors had their hands full trying to repair the damage to the relationship with the United States that Hatoyama's wavering stance on Futenma had done.
Hatoyama's immediate successor, Naoto Kan, had to deal with the collision of a Chinese trawler with two Japan Coast Guard ships in waters near the Senkaku Islands. In addition, Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashiri island, part of the disputed Northern Territories, twice as both Russian president and prime minister.
A high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said, "While we were concentrating on the Senkaku Islands issue, we were dealt a blow on the Northern Territories and also caught by surprise with Takeshima. It is nothing less than a three-front strategy. With the continuation of unstable administrations, neighboring nations could easily notice Japan's weak points."
A major reason South Korea has taken such a hardline stance against Japan is Tokyo's muted response to repeated requests for action on the issue of "comfort women" who were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.
Another factor behind South Korea's recent assertiveness is its growing confidence on the international stage. U.S. President Barack Obama in a meeting with Lee last October called South Korea a "global partner" of the United States, leading to the feeling in South Korea that it had reached the same level as Japan as a major power in Asia.
The Japan-China relationship has also been shaken by drastic changes in the international arena. While Japan was seen as the locomotive for the Asian economy after World War II, its overall clout has been in steady decline. At the same time, China has emerged rapidly in the economic and global arenas.
While Japanese government sources said China would not stop using its newfound influence to have its way, the Noda administration does not appear ready to back down either.
Noda gave tacit approval for Cabinet ministers to visit Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II in Japan. It was the first time DPJ ministers have visited the shrine.
One who made the visit said, "Noda has always had the feeling that Japan should engage in Asian diplomacy from a strong position."
The negative spiral of diplomatic tension will only continue if governments of the three nations cannot back down because of domestic public opinion.
A high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said, "We will have to draw the line somewhere so that the two sides do not further escalate the situation. However, once a relationship is damaged, it is not easy to restore to its former state."
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