Japan must find voice to match its clout

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 September, 2009, 12:00am

Japan's new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, and his centre-left Democratic Party represent change. That was their election campaign pledge; it was why voters last month ended more than 50 years of almost uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. Japanese expect a return of the economic good times, social reform and a redrawing of the links between politics, the bureaucracy and big business. They should also push for their nation to gain the international voice that it so plainly lacks.

The country has the world's second-largest economy, an unparalleled technology base and highly educated population. Despite this, it has punched below its weight on the international stage. It has been generous with development aid and its electronics companies and vehicle makers have high profiles. Diplomatically, politically and militarily, though, Japan is barely visible.

Hatoyama has made the right noises on some issues. He has pledged Japan will take a lead role in tackling global warming. The party vowed in its election manifesto to 'do its utmost to build relationships of trust with China, South Korea and other Asian countries'; improved ties with Beijing were emphasised. This is obviously good, but less positive signs have been forthcoming on foreign policy beyond the region. The party wants Japan's military to end a refuelling mission supporting US-led operations in Afghanistan. This is a backward step - it is not in the world's interest that Afghanistan remain unstable. Hatoyama is also seeking a realignment of his country's security alliance with Washington that in part involves the withdrawal of 8,000 American troops from Japanese soil. While that may be an understandable sentiment, it represents a significant shift in the status quo that would be difficult for Beijing, which is wary of Japan's military past, to deal with.

Japan was beginning to assert itself internationally under the LDP. Indications are that the Hatoyama government will roll back some advances. It should reconsider its position. Japan has to be a 'normal' country in every way. That means its becoming an important partner of the international community.