Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned home on Jan. 19 after a tour of Southeast Asia, his first overseas trip since taking office late last year.
Abe cut short his visit to the region to focus on responding to the hostage crisis in Algeria, in which Japanese nationals are among the victims. As a result, he had to cancel a scheduled speech to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of a friendly and cooperative relationship between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Even so, Abe achieved some diplomatic gains from the tour, which was aimed at enlisting Southeast Asia's cooperation in dealing with China, which has been increasing its military presence in the East and South China seas, and at stepping up Japan's efforts to tap the fast-growing region's strong economic vitality.
But it can hardly be said that the visit qualifies as a good first step in his quest to pursue what he calls "diplomacy based on values."
Speaking about the guiding principles for his diplomacy toward ASEAN during a news conference in Jakarta, Abe said he will try to help ensure that universal values like freedom, democracy and basic human rights will take root and spread further in the region.
But did his actions match his words?
Take what he did in Vietnam, the first country on his itinerary, for instance. Like China, Vietnam is still under a one-party Communist dictatorship.
Just recently, some bloggers criticizing the government were arrested in the country, which imposes restrictions on press freedom.
Like other ASEAN members, Vietnam is among the lowest-ranked countries when it comes to freedom of speech, as assessed annually by an international nongovernmental organization.
While joining his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Tan Dung in touting a "strategic partnership" between the two countries, Abe apparently didn't call on the Southeast Asian country to take steps to improve the situation of freedom of expression.
Meanwhile, Abe pledged to promote Japan’s exports of nuclear power technology to Vietnam, following the trail blazed by the previous government led by the Democratic Party of Japan.
Efforts to reveal the whole truth about the Fukushima nuclear disaster are far from over, and the government has yet to decide on its new nuclear power policy.
And yet the Abe administration is working eagerly to sell Japan's nuclear power technology to other countries. The feasibility study on the introduction of nuclear power generation currently under way in southern Vietnam is fully financed by the Japanese government.
The Vietnamese government, which has signed a contract with utility consortium Japan Atomic Power Co. for a feasibility study for two new reactors, plans to keep the public in the dark about the results of the study. It also keeps the area where the study is being conducted mostly off-limits to media and field surveys by researchers.
Can this project to export nuclear technology to Vietnam, which is totally devoid of transparency, be seen as consistent with Abe's "diplomacy based on universal values"?
Abe's values-based diplomacy may be designed primarily to put diplomatic pressure on China and North Korea.
But it cannot be described as a bona fide effort to promote universal values if Abe stresses the importance of these values only to a sprinkling of specific countries.
Just as he started his Southeast Asia tour, officials in other countries made remarks that call Abe's own values into question.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr urged Japan to keep honoring its 1993 statement acknowledging that the Japanese military forcefully recruited "comfort women" to provide sex for its soldiers before and during World War II. That episode was one of the darkest in modern history, and a revision of the statement, issued by the then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, is undesirable, Carr said, warning against the Abe administration's move to change the government's position on the sensitive issue.
A high-ranking official of the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama has also voiced similar concerns.
Clearly, Abe is also facing the question of what kind of values Japan should share with other countries.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 19
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