A weak PM with strong ideas

A weak PM with strong ideas

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda may soon be out of office, but he should be commended for trying to leave his mark as an above-the-fray statesman, writes Tom Plate

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Friday, June 6, 2008

Los Angeles --- Yasuo Fukuda, at 71, may not have many more months as prime minister. The Japanese political system’s revolving door, which coughed up to the world countless PMs in the decade of the nineties alone, would appear to be ratcheting up its act to roll over into full severe swing yet again.

Junichiro Koizumi, who actually held onto the PM job for five years (2001-2006), is now beginning to look something like Japan's version of a modern Mount Rushmore.

But before Fukuda leaves office -- presumably unceremoniously, and perhaps this summer -- Japan's 91st prime minister appears determined to leave his mark. Since September, in fact, the septuagenarian moderate conservative from the Liberal Democratic Party has been at pains to paint Japan as a vast canvas of peace-loving stability and humanitarian impulse.

And, largely, he has been rather convincing. His speeches -- some of them excellent, in fact -- are models of above-the-fray statesmanship. He always tries to make nice-nice with robustly rising China, pointedly coos civilly to oft-irritated South Korea, and grandly pushes a big arm out of the East Asian region and over into Southeast Asia to offer an assurance of neighborliness.

The philosophical basis of his posture is neither insincere nor unprecedented. On the contrary, it derives from a 1977 statement of foreign-policy principles that has served as the gyroscope of Japanese foreign policy ever since then. This panel of policies overtly asserts Japan's deep determination to avoid militarism or even ambitions thereto, and to rely instead on improving relations of trust built on a steadiness of friendliness and helpfulness.

That statement of principle is widely known in Japan as the "Fukuda Doctrine," but it originally came not from the current PM Fukuda but from the current PM's father when he was at the height of his own career.

His son explicitly reiterated that stand the other day: "No other relationship between Japan and the countries of Asia is possible. In that, I think, the Fukuda Doctrine is still very much alive."

How special it must be, emotionally, to be able to carry such a celebrated torch of one's father and seek to re-enshrine its relevance today! Whatever his shortcomings as a leader -- and they are very apparent to all -- the current PM must be given credit where it is due for trying to portray his nation as a happy member of a family of Asians that is not growing apart or dysfunctional -- but perhaps something of the opposite, in his view.

"Coming into my mind is the image of a developing Asia that is forming a network of countries for which the Pacific Oceans is an 'inland sea'," he put it in a thoughtful speech in Tokyo late last month.

Fukuda's conception was of a shrinking Pacific encircled by a community of nations, so that the former gargantuan ocean is now more like a cozy communal lake with Australia and New Zealand on one far end, with South Asia and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) straddling the middle, and with Japan, China and North America in effect anchoring the other far end. By seeking to "expand our psychological outlook on the region dramatically," in the PM's words, "should we not clear away the short-sighted psychological partitioning, a remnant of the 20th century, that divides the Pacific Ocean into western and eastern parts? By overcoming that thinking, don't we feel as if a big weight has been lifted off our shoulders?"

This likable vision offers a contemporary antithesis to Rudyard Kipling's famous view that "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet." It is also noticeably pro-ASEAN in its vision of that Asian economic NATO as a potential powerhouse on the world geopolitical stage. With this instinct, Fukuda joins deep thinkers like Singapore's Kishore Mahbubani in hoping that before long ASEAN will be widely recognized as a force of the magnitude of the European Union.

"Asia has now come to the fore as a central player in world history," Fukuda concludes. "However...Asian countries should steadily broaden their outlook towards the Pacific and develop their capacity to participate in the creation of this network."

The prime minister's clarion call for Japan's Asian neighbors to get their political act together is timely and helpful -- and perhaps even historic. To be sure, this difficult but arguably inevitable process could be immensely advanced were Japan itself to get its political act together. But Japan's dominating Liberal Democratic Party, for which Fukuda is currently the presiding president, is undergoing its own slow metamorphosis. The PM himself won't be permitted enough time as its boss to preside over much of the change. Even so, with his own time rapidly running out, Fukuda is trying to make the most of what history is giving him; and, in the process, he is making little bits of positive history himself.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.