Japan Weakness Invites Challenges by China, Russia as U.S. Backing Invoked

Japanese border disputes with China and Russia are thwarting the goals of Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s ruling party to improve ties with its neighbors and reduce dependence on the U.S. security umbrella.

The September collision of a Chinese fishing boat with two Japanese Coast Guard vessels near islands claimed by both sides increased friction between Asia’s biggest economies. Last week’s visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to an island also claimed by Japan hurt ties as well.

The incidents underscored Japan’s weakness relative to its largest neighbors and its dependence on the U.S., said Bhubhindar Singh, a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore who specializes in Japanese security policy. Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in February 2009 called for a “more equal” relationship with Japan’s biggest ally.

Japan’s economic and political vulnerability “definitely played a part in terms of facilitating or motivating China and Russia to play up these issues right now,” Singh said. “What these territorial issues have shown is that the U.S. will continue to be the primary security partner for Japan.”

The disputes have sent Kan’s popularity plunging while he struggles to boost an economy threatened by more than a decade of deflation and a surging yen.

Mending Fences

China and Japan are likely to gradually mend fences, given the importance of trade ties and the fact that greater tensions with Japan would increase U.S.-Chinese friction, said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

“The fundamental strategic issue as far as China is concerned is between China and the United States,” Dujarric said.

Kan, 64, will attend the Nov. 11-12 Group of 20 summit in Seoul, then host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Yokohama, where he is seeking talks with Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao. He said today in parliament that it is still undecided whether either meeting will take place. Kan is also set to meet with President Barack Obama.

China is Japan’s biggest trading partner. Two-way trade rose 31 percent in the first nine months of the year, to $216 billion, compared with the same period a year ago, according to the Japan External Trade Organization. Trade with Russia in the same period was $17.3 billion.

Eight-Month Dispute

Japanese-U.S. relations soured during an eight-month disagreement over whether to move a U.S. Marine base off the island of Okinawa, which contributed to Hatoyama’s June resignation.

Now, the Obama administration is supporting Japan regarding the Sept. 7 maritime collision in the East China Sea near uninhabited islands controlled by Japan and also claimed by China. The U.S. is using a two-pronged approach that emphasizes American security commitments without specifically backing the territorial claim.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at an Oct. 30 speech in Hanoi that while the U.S. doesn’t take a position on the sovereignty of the islands, they fall under the U.S.-Japan security alliance, protecting them from attack. She also said she was willing to host the foreign ministers of China and Japan to help resolve the situation.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Ma Zhaoxu on Nov. 2 rejected Clinton’s mediation offer and called her position “extremely wrong.”

Rare Earth

China responded to the 17-day detention of the captain of the fishing trawler by cutting ministerial ties and blocking exports to Japan of rare-earth minerals used in hybrid cars and batteries. Japanese prosecutors released the captain, citing the need to improve relations with China.

The territorial dispute with Russia has prevented the two countries from signing a World War II peace treaty. Kan recalled his ambassador to Moscow after Medvedev on Nov. 1 became the first Russian leader to visit one of four islands seized by the Soviet Union after World War II.”

Kan in effect “threw down the gauntlet” to Medvedev, perhaps motivated by recent Russian agreements with China to cede territory claimed by both nations, said Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Defense Policy in Moscow.

Russia is unlikely to make concessions to Japan, Lukyanov said. While refusing to negotiate with China would have damaged relations with the region’s dominant economy, “Japan doesn’t have the same potential for growth,” he said.

Backing Japan

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley on Nov. 1 said “we do back Japan” over the islands claimed by Russia, while declining to say whether they also fall under U.S. obligations to defend Japan from attack.

Since Kan took office four months ago, his Democratic Party of Japan lost its majority in the upper house of parliament and he had to fend off a leadership challenge. Government reports last week showed factory production falling and deflation deepening.

Equities have been largely unaffected by the diplomatic rows, with the Nikkei 225 Stock Average reaching its highest level in more than three months.

Kan’s popularity dropped to 35 percent from 53 percent a month ago, the Yomiuri newspaper said on Nov. 8. Four in five respondents disapproved of his handling of the dispute with China. The paper polled 1,052 people on Nov. 5-Nov. 7 and provided no margin of error.

Japanese opposition politicians have criticized Kan for his diplomatic moves and as many as 3,000 people rallied against China last month in Tokyo.

“The Japanese government can’t blame anyone but themselves,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, director of foreign and security policy research at the Tokyo Foundation policy institute. “It points to a real lack of experience.”

To contact the reporter on this story: John Brinsley in Tokyo at jbrinsley@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bill Austin at billaustin@bloomberg.net

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