The thriller in Manila

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 August, 2007, 12:00am

Habitually cautious and proper, Japanese envoys are hardly known for their swaggering ebullience. Yet those were the qualities Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso displayed during the Asean regional ministers' meetings in Manila this week.

Dressed in immaculately tailored light-shaded suits, Mr Aso was a visibly bright presence, clasping shoulders and pumping hands with his regional counterparts.

'He looked like a winner,' one diplomatic insider said. 'Everyone was talking about him ... no one had ever seen him quite like this. For a man whose party and leader had just suffered a big defeat, he looked a surprisingly happy man.'

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings kicked off, of course, on the day Mr Aso's Liberal Democratic Party suffered one of the worst electoral defeats in its 52-year-history.

Voters in the upper house elections reacted to a wave of scandals across the cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Mr Abe has vowed to stay on yet the political vultures spot a carcass.

Some Japanese analysts have even started referring to him as a 'dead body', a Sumo wrestling term for a fighter on the verge of collapse.

Commentators suggest he will stagger on until next month, resigning soon after representing Japan at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Sydney.

And if Mr Abe goes, the frontrunner to replace him is Mr Aso.

The developments created an extra buzz around Mr Aso during one of the key events on the regional diplomatic calendar. For some, particularly Beijing, the week was particularly strategic, offering the chance of a formal meeting between Mr Aso and new Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and more informal encounters over lunches and dinners.

Just as Beijing's envoys spent considerable effort discreetly courting Mr Abe before he replaced then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi last September, they can be expected to do the same with Mr Aso, diplomatic sources said.

Mr Koizumi, despite his modern, reformist image, sent Sino-Japanese ties into a tailspin with repeated visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni war shrine.

Mr Abe was also an enthusiastic visitor but Beijing let him know it was prepared to offer a clean slate to restore ties.

Reflecting internal business and public concerns, he took the bait, making renewed ties with Japan's largest trading partner his priority. He made a swift visit to Beijing, a move reciprocated by Premier Wen Jiabao , who visited Tokyo in April. The nagging issue of the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 class A war criminals from the second world war are among those honoured, may remain unsolved but at least it had been put in the background.

But when it comes to courting Mr Aso, Beijing may find him a tougher sell than Mr Abe.

Mr Aso and Mr Abe hail from the same right-wing edge of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, both apparently keen to assert a new Japanese nationalism. Both, too, are political nobility with long experience in the LDP's cloistered political salons, with deep family ties to Japan's ruling elites.

If there is a difference, it is the extent of Mr Aso's outspokenness - hardly a common trait for a foreign minister, even if he has curbed his tongue in recent months.

It is not just that Mr Aso has a long track record of proudly speaking his mind; his choice of words can be particularly jarring.

As economics minister back in 2001, he was quoted as saying he wanted to make Japan a nation where 'rich Jews' would want to live.

Just last month, he was forced to apologise to Alzheimer's sufferers after suggesting that even they could understand that Japanese rice fetched a higher price in China than at home.

He has long stoked the embers under simmering historical disputes in Northeast Asia, stemming from Japan's occupations in Asia last century. As interior minister in 2003, he suggested that Koreans had 'volunteered' to take Japanese names during colonial times.

But it is his comments about the mainland that have triggered some of the biggest controversies, given considerable sentiment across Japanese business foreign policy and business elites that historical issues must not be allowed to poison future ties with the rising giant of a neighbour.

At times, Mr Aso has had little truck with moves underway to promote shared understanding between Japanese, Chinese and Korean scholars. 'It is extremely difficult to have the [same] kind of understanding of history,' he said.

In a similar vein as foreign minister, Mr Aso urged Emperor Akihito to break from palace tradition and visit the Yasukuni Shrine, saying the soldiers honoured there gave their lives shouting 'banzai' for the throne, rather than the prime minister.

He added that any grumbles from Beijing would only prove unproductive. The more Beijing complained, he said, the more inspired he felt.

'It is just like when you're told 'Don't smoke cigarettes', it actually makes you want to smoke. It is best to keep quiet'. He also described the mainland as a 'considerable threat'.

Such remarks in office at the height of Mr Koizumi's difficulties over the Yasukuni Shrine in 2005 and early last year brought condemnation from some unusual sources.

An editorial comment in the The New York Times described Mr Aso as 'neither honest nor wise' in his attempts to go out of his way to inflame Sino-Japanese relations.

Some Japanese political analysts speculated at the time that Mr Koizumi had deliberately made such a provocative choice as foreign minister to polish the prime ministerial credentials of his chosen successor, Mr Abe. Mr Abe may be conservative, but he looked positively moderate in comparison to Mr Aso, the thinking went.

If that was indeed the case, it has backfired as Mr Aso finds himself in pole position. It is also worth remembering that Mr Aso's outspokenness is not a product of mere accidental slips of the tongue.

In a rare interview, he told the BBC last year that it was unfortunate that no one told Beijing what they truly thought. 'I believe that we must represent Japan's true feelings and it must be done by someone like myself,' he said.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Mr Aso has a marked individual streak. While he may visit a Shinto shrine such as Yasukuni, he is a practising Christian, a minority in Japan. He also happily indulges in the reading of manga comics, reportedly devouring up to 20 a week despite his duties.

Like Mr Abe, his background also makes interesting reading, putting him in the highest echelons of the ruling conservative elites. If he does replace Mr Abe, he will be following his grandfather Shigeru Yoshida, the premier who signed the 'pacifist' constitution of Japan and father-in-law Zenko Suzuki. There are regal ties, too. His sister is married to Prince Tomohito.

Such a background helped lead to a top-drawer education. A graduate in politics and economics at Gakushuin University, he went on to study at Stanford University to the concern of his family, who feared he was being exposed to too many American influences. He ended up at the University of London in the early 1960s, acquiring a taste for Saville Row suits and a refined English accent that he has kept.

As a young man he toiled in the family business, the Aso Mining Company - including a spell running its operations in the war-torn African state of Sierra Leone. Serving as Aso Mining's president from 1973 to 1979 before entering politics, he managed time for his love of shooting and golf. A crack shot, he represented Japan in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

The Aso Mining link is another source of lingering controversy. A key part of Japan's military-industrial complex for decades before the second world war, Aso Mining was a major producer of coal. Thousands of Koreans and hundreds of allied prisoners were forced to toil in Aso mines.

But any historic tensions were kept beneath the surface this week as Mr Aso concentrated on diplomacy, seeking to forge and deepen ties across the region, not just with Beijing but New Delhi and Hanoi and the rest of the 10 Asean nations. He managed to invoke a swift and detailed response from Mr Yang when he linked China's growing influence on the world stage to its food safety troubles.

'This week he was on his best behaviour,' one Asian diplomat said. 'The trick for Beijing is going to be how to keep him there.'

For a man whose party and leader had just suffered a big defeat, he looked a ... happy man

Diplomatic insider

on Taro Aso in Manila