Tokyo Notes

DPJ Grey at APEC

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Tokyo Notes

DPJ Grey at APEC

TPP entry placed on back burner as Naoto Kan gets sidetracked by diplomatic disputes at APEC summit.

Despite all the speculation ahead of the APEC summit in Yokohama over a possible bold announcement by Japan that it intended to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal talks, as Jason noted over the weekend in China Power, the focus ultimately ended up being more on whether Tokyo would make diplomatic progress with Beijing, Moscow and Washington.

If Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan had announced his government’s intention to take part in the TPP negotiations, it could have been a defining moment of his premiership: a daring decision with which he might have finally stopped the rot of public discontent and splashed some colour on an administration that has looked increasingly grey.

But if the DPJ-led government of autumn 2009 was attracting global attention for its ambitious goals on, for example, carbon dioxide emissions and its insistence on redefining its relationship with the United States, the DPJ administration of autumn 2010 is a much more cautious beast reminiscent of LDP governments of the past as it seeks to make progress in baby steps and return to the warm and familiar embrace of the US-Japan alliance.

It had already become highly unlikely that a decision to take part in the TPP would be made at APEC after the government announced last week that Japan planned simply to start consultations with the TPP participants. In particular, by giving a seemingly distant June 2011 date for addressing issues such as agricultural reform, which will be crucial to any participation in the TPP, Kan seemed keen to temper expectations before the summit was underway.

While the current nine TPP participants were setting a goal of next year’s APEC summit for Japan to make up its mind, Kan seemed to be focusing more on his meetings with Hu Jintao, Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama.

And in terms of diplomatic progress, that’s about as much as can be said: He met them.

Hu and Medvedev didn’t budge on their respective positions regarding the Senkaku islands and the disputed ‘Northern Territories’ off Hokkaido, while the best Obama and Kan could do was announce that a statement on deepening the US-Japan alliance would come next spring. The fact that they missed the obvious timing of the 50th anniversary of the 1960 revised security treaty seems an obvious result of the Futenma air base relocation issue obstructing progress. But with China and Russia flexing their muscles on territorial issues, a bolstering of the alliance is no longer something that many in the DPJ think merely warrants lip service.

Still, just the fact Kan did meet and talk with Medvedev and especially Hu, means APEC was at least not overshadowed by a hugely embarrassing diplomatic snub that could have exacerbated strained relations between Japan and China.

Instead, APEC was able to conclude a smoothly staged summit by promising—in the best spirit of world bodies—to take future concrete steps to achieve its (free trade) goals.