New LDP chief will keep ties with US on even keel

JAPAN’S NEW LEADER

THE US-Japan alliance will remain rock solid under new prime minister Yasuo Fukuda but some here expect his government to be hamstrung until new elections are held.

Known for his calls for closer ties with Asian neighbours, Mr Fukuda is less likely to be dogmatic compared with his predecessors on North Korea and China – a stance that will draw support in the Bush administration.

His immediate foreign policy test lies in whether he can win support in Parliament for the Japanese refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean that is critical to the Nato-led mission in Afghanistan.

Indeed, concerns are being expressed here over whether Mr Fukuda will be able to stamp his influence in policy-making in the face of a resurgent opposition, which won control of the Upper House of Parliament in the July elections.

Dr Kurt Campbell, a former Clinton administration official, has warned that Japan is returning to the murky politics of the 1990s.

“Increasingly, Japanese politicians are playing a larger role in determining policies,” he told The Straits Times. “It is not clear whether a weakened bureaucracy can step into this vacuum that has been created.”

The expectation is that any government in Japan is likely to be weak and temporary.

Veteran Asia hand Jeffrey Bader from the Brookings Institute explained: “It will be unable to take bold actions either in foreign affairs or domestically until there are new elections and a more decisive majority emerges one way or the other.”

One issue which is bound to come to the fore is the mission to refuel coalition ships in the Indian Ocean, a step strongly sought by Washington – but resisted by the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan and its small allies.

Some believe that Mr Fukuda, who has proven himself to be a competent party and legislative manager in the Liberal Democratic Party under premiers Yoshiro Mori and Junichiro Koizumi, might well make a case for the refuelling mission.

He has already publicly stressed the importance of extending the mission.

Foreign policy is certainly one area where he would be expected to differ sharply from his predecessor Shinzo Abe.

“He is really a ‘neo-realist’ to Abe, who was a ‘neo-con’,” said Dr Michael Green, a leading Japan scholar and former Bush aide on Asia.

“Fukuda is not as hawkish on either North Korea or China, but neither is he a dove.”

The 71-year-old son of a former prime minister, Mr Takeo Fukuda, the new prime minister had in the past emphasised the importance of relations with Japan’s Asian neighbours. He is likely to maintain warm ties with rivals such as China.

He has criticised former Japanese leader Koizumi, for example, for visiting the Yasukuni shrine which China and the two Koreas see as a symbol of Japan’s militarism.

“Fukuda has a good chance to craft a realistic, interest-based policy towards China that gets beyond the history problems that hobbled the Koizumi government,” said Asia expert Kevin Nealer of the Scowcroft Group, a Washington- based business advisory.

It clearly helps the US government, which is looking for ways to reduce friction between Beijing and Tokyo.

Mr Fukuda is also expected to take a less dogmatic view of the North Korean nuclear conundrum that will align him even more closely with Washington. Mr Abe’s red line was the abductee issue.

But the new Japanese leader has already indicated that he would consider normalisation of ties with Pyongyang and become an active participant in the six-party talks. The abductee problem will become part of a larger process now under way.

Mr Fukuda’s track record of working to develop the 50-year- old military alliance – he was the most critical figure for coordinating the Koizumi government’s robust cooperation with the US after the terror attacks of Sept 11 – has injected confidence in Washington.

“Certainly, at a broader level, there will be more continuity than change in bilateral ties,” noted Japan expert Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute.

“There will not be any significant change to the alliance at its core: the military dimension of the relationship and Japan remaining under the US security umbrella.”

The issue of concern here is how far he will be able to push bilateral ties forward during an uncertain period of divided government.

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