INTERVIEW/ Hitoshi Tanaka: Territorial flare-ups should be handled with cool professionalism

August 23, 2012


Tensions rose on Aug. 10, when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak landed on the disputed Takeshima islets, which are administered by Seoul. Soon afterward, activists from Hong Kong landed and tried to plant Chinese flags on the Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by Japan. A few days later, 10 Japanese citizens, including local assembly members, repeated the Senkakus stunt to underscore Japan's ownership of the islets.

Emotions are high and recriminations sharp. How should Japan handle this standoff with its two neighbors?

Hitoshi Tanaka is a retired diplomat. During his career he negotiated with some of Japan's toughest opponents, including North Korea. He offered insights in a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

Excerpts follow.

* * *

Question: Why do you think these problems have arisen with our two neighbors?

Hitoshi Tanaka: I can think of two reasons. One is that there is a clear shift going on now in global power dynamics. With newly emergent nations such as China and India and Southeast Asian nations growing in relative strength, the post-World War II global order is undergoing a dramatic transformation.

Ten years ago, China's economic power was only a quarter of Japan's. Back then, China needed Japan and Tokyo held considerable leverage over Beijing. For instance, when I was chief of the Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, Beijing complained about Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine where Japan's war dead, as well as class-A war criminals, are honored. Beijing, however, had no desire to let politics harm economic relations with Japan. But Japan's leverage over China has since diminished, as China's economic ties grew with the United States and Europe.

It's the same story with South Korea. Twenty years ago, it was still a minor country and Japan was giving South Korea technology and help. Today, South Korea is an economic powerhouse. It ranks 15th in the world, and is a member of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Now that South Korea has strong ties with many countries around the world, it knows it'll be fine even if its relationship with Japan goes south.

Q: Would you say the current complications with China and South Korea have something to do with Japan's own problems?

A: Yes, and that's the second reason I was going to mention. Japan is politically unstable. It's pretty obvious that a country whose top political leader lasts only a year cannot possibly conduct strong diplomacy.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan believes politicians must regain leadership over bureaucrats. But even a seasoned politician who becomes prime minister needs at least a few months to settle into his job. And his administration will likely be a lame duck in its final months, so that effectively leaves an administration only a few months to focus on diplomacy. This doesn't help at all.

It took me more than a year to negotiate with Pyongyang to realize Prime Minister Koizumi's North Korea visit in 2002. You need more than a few months to wrap up crucial diplomatic negotiations, be they the relocation of the Futenma air base or the free trade agreement with Singapore. These diplomatic achievements were the result of a year or two of hard work under political leadership.

Q: On Aug. 29, Japan will resume talks with North Korea after a four-year hiatus. With East Asia in turmoil, what line of diplomacy should Japan pursue?

A: The government must address all pending issues with North Korea as one package. Pyongyang's nuclear program and missiles threaten our national security, while the abduction of Japanese citizens is a violation of our sovereignty. We can't cherry-pick certain issues and shelve the rest. We have to address them all. And we must work closely together with South Korea and the United States on the understanding that reconciliation between North Korea and South Korea is crucial to international politics. Another thing to bear in mind is that Japan, South Korea and the United States must work out a collective crisis control program among themselves. We must be prepared for Pyongyang's acts of military provocation and other irregular behavior.

Q: Japan today seems ripe for a surge of nationalism and populism. What are your thoughts?

A: Popular sentiment can negatively impact and interfere with diplomacy. To prevent that, we must at all times urge reason in public debate. Politicians, bureaucrats and the media can all be influenced by nationalism and populism. I must appeal to everyone's sense of professionalism. For bureaucrats, that means proposing only rational policies; for politicians, it means making only sensible decisions and accounting for them to the public; and the media must at all costs avoid sensationalism and extremist thinking. When public opinion swings toward nationalism and populism it does serious damage to the nation. That's how Japan got itself into World War II.

Q: Japan's relationship with South Korea seems to have deteriorated drastically since President Lee Myung-bak's landing on Takeshima.

A: Perhaps that's true. But it doesn't mean our relationship is finished. It has been reported that Lee landed on Takeshima because he wasn't happy with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's response to the so-called comfort women issue, which Lee raised during their summit talks in Kyoto last year. If that is correct, I have to wonder if President Lee knows anything about the efforts Japan has made over the past years.

I know the details very well because I personally dealt with the issue as the head of the Policy Coordination Division of the Foreign Policy Bureau. That was in 1995, when Tomiichi Murayama was prime minister. An organization called Asian Women's Fund (AWF) was established with private-sector funding. The AWF solicited donations from the public and received some government funding, too. The AWF paid 2 million yen as an expression of condolences to every woman who had been "recruited" by the former Imperial Japanese Army for sexual services. We handed the money to each woman, together with a letter of apology from the prime minister (Ryutaro Hashimoto). When I asked South Korean government officials if they had any objections to what we were doing, they said they had none because this was Japan's business, not theirs. But one South Korean president said that since the compensation issue has already been legally settled between South Korea and Japan, it should be for the South Korean government to provide funding.

The current low in Japan-South Korea relations cannot be helped. Every relationship between two countries is a two-way affair. When something goes wrong, you can't blame it on just one party. But I think South Korea's recent behavior has been extreme.

Q: The Noda administration is planning to take the Takeshima issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. How would you assess this as a diplomatic move?

A: I presume the administration's intent is to have an international body decide the issue objectively on the basis of historical facts. That's fine in itself, but I don't see this as an effective diplomatic card. There will be no case unless South Korea agrees to go along. We had the same thing happen before.

Q: What should Japan's long-term Asia policy be?

A: Japan should come up with a "big picture" for East Asia. This involves establishing win-win relations with all nations in the region, showing them that everyone, not only Japan, stands to gain by being a part of it. We need to figure out how to go about shaping such a world.

East Asian countries' greatest fear is Japan and China fighting each other. In that sense, Japan has a responsibility toward the region. We cannot pursue only our own interests; we must act with those of others in mind, too.

Q: Specifically, what should Japan do?

A: Japan must be proactive. Japanese foreign policy in the days ahead should be about considering what to do to build a healthy East Asian order and generate common interests. Japan should act accordingly. It can achieve the best results by making rules, jointly developing energy, and creating a situation that will benefit everyone.

Japan should also hold fast to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, and nurture mutual trust among East Asian countries by advancing unconventional security cooperation.

Q: But Japan's relations with the United States have been shaken by the U.S. deployment of Osprey military transport aircraft and the long-running dispute over relocation of the Futenma military base.

A: There is a need to rebuild the framework underpinning Japan-U.S. relations. The biggest challenge lies in how to face China in a constructive manner. The Japan-U.S. Security Treaty has been mutually beneficial, but Okinawa's base burden has become too much in these times of peace. It is time to review the treaty radically. One thing that can be done is to make the U.S. bases less exclusively U.S. property by letting Self-Defense Forces share them or use them for joint exercises. In any case, the situation must be changed as soon as possible, and that includes relocating troops to Guam and Hawaii.

Q: But you would advise against hasty action, wouldn't you?

A: Diplomacy takes time and energy. It requires cool, objective deliberation by professionals, and that is especially the case with territorial disputes and issues involving North Korea. The last thing we need is the nation's foreign policy experts trying to sell a flimsy, emotion-loaded argument to the public and leading them astray. A drastic change in policy would not ensure a smooth track.

* * *

Hitoshi Tanaka, born in 1947, joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1969. He headed the Economic Affairs Bureau and the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau. Tanaka is currently chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute. His published works include "Gaiko no Chikara" (Power of diplomacy).

(This interview was conducted by Shingo Takano, staff writer, and Masaaki Tonedachi, senior staff writer.)

  • 1
submit to reddit
Hitoshi Tanaka (Photo by Ken Aso)

Hitoshi Tanaka (Photo by Ken Aso)

  • Hitoshi Tanaka (Photo by Ken Aso)
  • Hitoshi Tanaka (Photo by Ken Aso)

More AJW