EDITORIAL: Are Foreign Ministry bureaucrats up to the task of diplomacy?

August 22, 2012

As part of a personnel reshuffle of top Foreign Ministry bureaucrats planned for autumn, Uichiro Niwa will be replaced by Shinichi Nishiyama, a deputy foreign minister, as ambassador to China.

It was only two years ago that the government plucked Niwa from the private sector for the Beijing posting, the first time it had done so. Niwa was tapped for his extensive contacts in China and wealth of experience as president and later chairman of Itochu Corp.

Niwa's premature recall must not be allowed to become the precedent for denying ambassadorial posts to "outsiders" in the future.

The direct cause of Niwa's recall was his interview with a British newspaper, in which he warned that the Tokyo metropolitan government's proposed plans to purchase the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea would cause "a grave crisis in Japan-China relations."

There is no question that his remarks conflicted with the Japanese government's position, which is that since the islands are Japanese territory, Tokyo's interest in purchasing them has nothing to do with diplomacy.

Still, it is simple common sense that the matter was bound to jolt Japan's relations with China. And surely, a non-diplomat envoy such as Niwa would obviously think and speak differently from Foreign Ministry officials. In fact, he was expected to offer fresh ideas and voice candid opinions like no career diplomat can, and even tell the government what it may not want to hear.

It is a pity the Noda administration did not give its full support to Niwa.

Katsuya Okada, who as foreign minister talked Niwa into accepting the ambassadorship two years ago, stated at the time, "(Niwa's appointment) will be the test of whether the practice of appointing envoys from the private sector will take root." He also promised to "establish a personnel system to support (Niwa)."

Three months later, Okada stepped down as foreign minister and became secretary-general of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.

Ten years ago, an advisory panel to the foreign minister issued a set of recommendations after senior ministry officials were found to have embezzled secret funds over many years. The report urged the minister to search broadly for the most appropriate ambassadorial candidates, and it recommended that the proportion of envoys from the private sector be increased to about 20 percent over three years to encourage competition with Foreign Ministry bureaucrats.

Niwa's appointment was in line with the panel report, and many of its recommendations remain appropriate to this day.

Aside from Niwa's recall, another matter troubles us. It concerns the appointment of a vice foreign minister as ambassador to the United States, the first such posting in 11 years.

Up until 2002, when the advisory panel report issued its report,

it was customary for former vice foreign ministers to become ambassadors to the United States. But in the years since the report was issued, the post of vice foreign minister was considered the last stop for career diplomats.

The panel reasoned that the custom had to change as it made it unclear who the ultimate "top dog" was among Foreign Ministry officials: the vice minister or the ambassador to the United States.

On the diplomatic front, Japan faces a number of tough challenges. We fear that the revival of the "good old days" for Foreign Ministry officials this autumn may weaken their very ability to conduct effective diplomacy.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 22

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