Prime Minister Naoto Kan listens to Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the APEC summit. (Pool photo)
For years, as Japan has played musical chairs with its prime minister's post, China has steadily become the king of the castle in the neighborhood.
Now, after the failures of the successive Japanese leaders to devise a clear China strategy, the current government of Naoto Kan finds itself impotent in dealing with the latest crisis in East Asia--North Korea's shelling of a South Korean island Tuesday.
Kan said Thursday at the Lower House Budget Committee that China's involvement is needed to defuse the conflict between the two Koreas.
"We must also have China, which holds strong influence over North Korea, deal with the matter while being aware of the responsibility it has," Kan said.
Although Kan met with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Yokohama earlier this month, Japan's relations with China remained bruised over the brouhaha that ensued after a Chinese trawler rammed two Japan Coast Guard vessels near the disputed Senkaku Islands in September.
Japan is now in no position to lobby China to rein in North Korea.
"The current government has not sufficiently created an international order that involves China," said Lee Jong Won, a professor of international politics at Tokyo's Rikkyo University.
However, the Kan administration is not solely at fault for Japan's lack of a clear diplomatic vision for dealing with China.
Successive governments led by the Liberal Democratic Party before it lost power in the August 2009 Lower House election also failed to establish a clear strategy.
From the late 1990s, Japan had made few attempts to broaden its diplomatic outlook beyond simply depending on the security alliance with the United States.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's diplomatic stance was clear--place all of Japan's bets on the United States.
"The better Japan's relations with the United States become, the better will be Japan's relations with China, South Korea and other Asian nations," Koizumi once said.
He underscored that stance by dispatching the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq and the Indian Ocean for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Koizumi also visited North Korea twice, met with its leader, Kim Jong Il, and managed to repatriate Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang. North Korea at one time hoped that Koizumi would serve as an intermediary for dialogue with the United States.
But at the same time, Koizumi infuriated China and South Korea by making annual pilgrimages to Yasukuni Shrine, where Class-A war criminals are honored along with Japan's war dead.
Koizumi's successor, Shinzo Abe, proposed establishing a "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests" with China. But Abe resigned after a year before that idea could fully develop.
Abe's successors, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso, were also in office for only about a year each. They achieved nothing constructive in terms of improving relations with China.
Efforts had been made to deal with an emerging China, but the main focus was greater cooperation between the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military.
In 2005, the Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee issued a joint statement that included a list of "common strategic objectives."
The objectives included one to "support peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula" and another to "encourage the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue."
The list's overall objective was having Japan and the United States work closely together to deal with any development in East Asia.
However, the common strategic objectives were considered a legacy of the LDP. Things changed after the Democratic Party of Japan took power in summer 2009.
When Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister, he proposed an "East Asian community" that would allow Japan to become more independent of its security alliance with the United States.
Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ's secretary-general under Hatoyama, said the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet would be a sufficient military presence in the Far East.
Those remarks led to increased concerns within Washington about the Hatoyama administration.
Matters reached a head when Hatoyama appeared willing to break a Japan-U.S. agreement on relocating the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture.
When Kan replaced Hatoyama, the new leader's main diplomatic concern was to re-emphasize Japan's alliance with the United States.
In the meantime, tensions on the Korean Peninsula increased, and China moved aggressively to expand its maritime interests.
Japan and the United States are finally seeking a new diplomatic vision.
During his Nov. 13 meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, Kan said, "Many people recognize the importance of the Japan-U.S. security alliance and of the presence of the U.S. military."
Kan and Obama also discussed ways to bring China into the international community and make it follow international rules.
However, Japan has yet to come up with a diplomatic strategy for all of Asia.
"There may have been a problem in which the DPJ government had not adjusted policy regarding its diplomatic stance," said Kiichi Fujiwara, a professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo. "However, with Kan succeeding Hatoyama, who proposed the East Asian community idea, gradual progress is being made to convert diplomatic policy to one of caution against China."
Akio Takahara, a University of Tokyo professor specializing in modern China politics, said the rapid growth of China has changed the picture.
"The largest factor of uncertainty in the East Asia region is the question of where China is headed. As long as it continues with its economic growth, its expansion of military power cannot be stopped. But China also cannot be contained," he said.
(This article was written by Kengo Sakajiri and Yoshiyuki Komurata.）