Asia Scope

Hatoyama – Sprinter or Marathon Man?

Nothing exciting to report on the trilateral meeting in Seoul yesterday of foreign ministers from China, Japan and South Korea. But what WILL be interesting to see is if Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama can keep up the impressive diplomatic pace he has been running at when he visits Seoul next month to meet South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Hatoyama won praise at home for his bold UN climate change speech and early meeting with Hu Jintao in New York last week. Indeed, his international overtures started before he was even elected, with a pledge not to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, in contrast to some of his predecessors who have infuriated China by doing so. Of course this is only a gesture, but it’s an important one that will mean Japan avoids unnecessarily giving China a diplomatic stick with which to beat it.

But welcome though these moves are, they won’t replace some kind of lasting agreement on the territorial issues that dog Japan and its two neighbors — with China over the disputed joint gas-development project in the East China Sea and South Korea over disputed islets (known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan). The dangers on the latter especially were made clear when I spoke last year with leading Korea watcher L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation. He offered the following advice:

‘If Japan thinks about this in terms of its national interests, this is not the Northern Territories (dispute with Russia), it is not Senkaku, there are not oilfields. If Japan is thinking about its role in the region then Japan ought to be big on this issue and ought to make a move to resolve it.’

Question now is if Hatoyama’s honeymoon will allow him some space domestically to make some tough international decisions.