The temperature was turned up a little in diplomatic relations between China, Korea and Japan on the election of new Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko earlier this week, with both Chinese and Korean media and government sources questioning the suitability of Noda’s thoughts on historical issues.

The first thing that needs to be said is that while Noda’s views on foreign policy are clearly quite different from those of his two immediate DPJ predecessors, like Kan he is probably unlikely to expend much political capital on trying to reconfigure foreign policy in any significant way unless security conditions change in the near future/next year or so. There is also a risk that too much can be read into Noda’s personal views on the Class A War Criminals, especially by the Western media.

As for the Chinese and Korean response, it is worthwhile considering that in China’s case in particular the domestic situation complicates the foreign policy agenda for the CCP, who have always fallen back on anti-Japanese sentiment if their preferred method of regime legitimation, economic growth and social peace, is challenged or elusive. Tension between the civilian and military stakeholders in the Chinese government is also present, and all of this is exacerbated by the fact that a leadership transition is taking place within the CCP – as it will soon do in Korea as well, and may do so in Taiwan. In other words, domestic politics will have much to do with whether Noda’s stint as Prime Minister will be one characterized by diplomatic tension, and this factor more than anything Noda believes or says in the meantime is likely the key dynamic that will decide how diplomatic relations will evolve over the next two years. Indeed Shelia Smith provides a good outline of how the political contours of the diplomatic dynamics between China, Korea, and Japan can operate independently of the political personalities involved:

When Japan’s much more well-known conservative nationalist, Shinzo Abe, succeeded Koizumi as prime minister in 2006, his personal views on the Class-A war criminals, on Yasukuni visits, and on Japan’s historical role in World War II were much more developed and clearly articulated. Yet, Beijing welcomed him with open arms as the post-Koizumi antidote to the freeze in bilateral relations, and went on to build a diplomatic partnership with Abe in crafting the reconciliatory “mutually beneficial strategic relationship” that, at least in theory, is the basis for Sino-Japanese relations today. Last year, Beijing took an open dislike to one of the DPJ’s most popular new leaders, Seiji Maehara, because of his positions on Chinese military expansion. Maehara has no positions on the history issue that would be disagreeable in China, and yet he has expressed some concerns about the future direction of China’s rise. He too is labeled a Japanese “nationalist,” and “anti-China.”

Perhaps cognizant of the sensitive conditions elsewhere in East Asia Noda has already committed to taking a low-posture on diplomacy by stating that in terms of the issue of legal interpretation of the War Criminals’ status, and history issues in general, he would follow the official government line. Noda’s own history of comments on such controversial diplomatic issues is not all that developed as it is, notwithstanding the comments regarding the Class A War Criminals. David Fedman, in providing a good overview of initial prospects for Japan’s foreign policy under Noda argues that while Noda has continued to ponder the issue since he raised it first in 2005, he is not likely to greatly change the way the DPJ in general has managed foreign relations with its Asian neighbours. Should he desire, Noda has the flexibility to maintain this low-posture into the future.

And in fact there may be much to recommend in terms of how Noda views relations with neighbouring country in amongst some of the more prickly issues. On his blog Noda discusses (jp) a trip he took to Korea to view Lee Myung-bak’s inauguration.1 On listening to Lee’s rousing recounting of his rise from a humble background to become the President of Korea, Noda writes that he sensed that Lee was an example of the new type of leader that Asia needed – pragmatic and not necessarily from an elite background. Noda goes on to discuss positively how the next day he was party to a meeting between popular former prime minister Nakasone Yasuhiro and Lee Myung-bak about statecraft and political responsibility. The “elder statesmen” Nakasone dispensed advice to the “new Asian leader” Lee, who in turn listened intently. The two then agreed to meet again in Korea in the future. The respect the different generation of leaders from different Asian countries had a moving impact upon Noda. Noda is unlikely going to be a soft touch, but as even Abe’s prime ministership showed, it absolutely possible that Noda will take a constructive approach to Japanese-Korean-Chinese diplomacy if conditions allow.

Whether he will on the other hand is another question and the responsibility for diplomatic tension cannot simply be placed in Noda’s lap. The Chinese media has already raised objections about Noda that are probably unnecessary- for example nothing that Noda’s father was an officer in the Japanese SDF. It would also seem they are problematically placing diplomatic tensions over history issues within the context of ongoing territorial disputes (or the other way around if you like). For example in the article discussing Noda’s appointment and his views on history it is reported that:

Xinhua says the new Japanese government must show respect for China’s territorial integrity concerning the Tokyo-administered island chain known to Japan as Senkaku and to China as Diaoyu. It says China is willing to jointly explore for resources around the islands, on condition that Japan recognize China’s complete sovereignty over them.

Given the recent rise in Chinese vessels challenging the Japanese Coast Guard in and around the Senkaku islands, the CCP would want to be careful about being seen to be challenging Japan’s effective control over the Senkaku islands. If there is a sense that the rhetoric of the CCP and the Chinese media aligns with Chinese government or military actions, then the Japanese public is less likely to ignore diplomacy and foreign policy and its government’s response.  It would also likely stimulate the Japanese government to review the more reactive posture on the territorial dispute it favours now, where as long as the status quo is respected and public pressure is manageable, its policy for dealing with naval incursions is generally to direct the offending vessels and personnel out of the disputed area.  Even Koizumi was happy to leave things as they were, and even if protesters landed on the islands themselves they were quickly deported back to their country of origin. Even the prospect of increasing challenges to effective control will be of significant concern for the Japanese government.

And Japan is, needless to say, in the middle of its own ‘sensitive’ domestic situation. Thus there are significant temptations for Noda to indeed push back on various sovereignty and territorial issues should Chinese and/or Korean responses become more overbearing and/or aggressive. Generally speaking the Japanese public is unforgiving of politicians who go out of their way to create diplomatic tension, especially over issues that are not fully resolved in Japan itself, like the various history issues. On the other hand the Japanese public also reacts strongly to any hint of an overbearing attitude towards Japan being present in diplomatic actions and statements directed towards Japan. The Korean response to the Dokdo controversy regarding a few minor parliamentarians visiting a museum not even on the disputed islands themselves is a good example of this, where the Japanese public turned from being unsympathetic to the goals of the parliamentarians’ visit to being strongly critical of the Korean government’s reaction. Likewise the Korean government’s policy of further militarising Dokdo, which is predicated on an assumption that Japan is likely to contest Korea’s effective control over the islands, has the potential to galvanize concern about the degree and intensity of anti-Japanese sentiment expressed by governments and media in the region, and how that in turn this sentiment justifies certain foreign policy and diplomatic actions. Perhaps the best example is the 2010 Senkaku islands dispute. As Conrad Chafee has pointed out, while public opinion on Kan’s overall handling of the diplomatic situation was widely critical, at the point in time when Kan was seen to be holding out against an unreasonable request for Japanese contrition, his support ratings rose, only to fall dramatically when the administration relented in the face of withering Chinese pressure. The graphic representation can be viewed here (jp).

In other words while the Japanese public was concerned but generally disengaged with the initial diplomatic incident, it was the pressure applied to the government, and the government’s eventual back-down after pressure was applied that stimulated, and eventually deeply disappointed the Japanese public. Making such a distinction is important because a politician will not be successful in gaining public support if they pursue diplomatic provocations for the sake of creating tension, but may be if there is a persistent sense that its neighbours are overacting to the, to be sure, very real security tensions in the region.  This is not argue that Japan has no responsibility for managing these tensions. Japan needs to be mindful of the domestic politics of other nations, and certainly more mindful than the Chinese government was in alienating the major mainstream voice (the DPJ’s Asia-friendly leadership) for constructive relations with China in Japan. However if such tensions do arise it would be inappropriate to simply blame the coming to power of a more “nationalist” Japanese prime minister.

Update: Noda has announced that he will not visit Yasukuni Shrine during his time in power, and neither will any of his cabinet ministers, continuing the unofficial DPJ policy started by Hatoyama. DPJ members outside of cabinet have visited Yasukuni Shrine. The ball is now back in Japan’s neighbours court.

1 H/T to David Fedman – Noda has a relatively long history of blogging it would seem.

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 256 post(s) on Japan Security Watch