Hawk who may fly high

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 October, 2010, 12:00am

As a young and ambitious politician, Seiji Maehara would have coveted the position of Japan's foreign minister when the Democratic Party of Japan swept to power in August last year. Now that he holds the post, the 48-year-old could be forgiven for being less enthusiastic about the tasks ahead.

Named foreign minister in a mid-September cabinet reshuffle after Naoto Kan ousted Yukio Hatoyama as the new party leader and the prime minister, Maehara finds himself confronted with arguably the two most difficult foreign affairs challenges of the past two decades.

Just 10 days before his inauguration on September 17, Japan's relationship with China nosedived as Asia's two major powers locked horns in a highly emotional dispute over a group of uninhabited isles - known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China.

Japanese coastguard forces arrested a Chinese captain whose fishing boat collided with two patrol ships in the disputed waters. The incident quickly blew into one of the biggest recent diplomatic crises between the two countries, with a seething China repeatedly demanding the captain's release and threatening to 'take further actions'.

While economically the two countries - ranked second and third, respectively, among global economies - are closely interdependent, bad blood runs deep in their relationship. Chinese people have not forgotten, nor forgiven, their wartime suffering - an issue they believe Tokyo has failed to address. Japan, in its turn, is wary of China's growing presence in Asia and increasingly frequent naval activities. The two sides still have unsolved territorial disputes - including the isles in the East China Sea.

All eyes are on how Maehara will handle the crisis. But, as complicated as the Sino-Japanese relationship is, it has become even more delicate as Japan enters a new phase in defining its ties with its most important ally - the United States. The left-leaning DPJ government has gone back and forth over the relocation of US military facilities on Okinawa and the re-confirmation of its alliance with Washington.

And that is even before he considers the perennial problem posed by a truculent and unpredictable North Korea. It is hardly surprising that many think Maehara picked up a poisoned chalice when he took over the foreign minister position.

Yet there are those who believe in Maehara. He showed a no-nonsense attitude and directness in his previous position, as minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism.

'He has a mind of his own, is very intelligent and active, although he does sometimes seem to speak out without fully considering the consequences of his words,' said Jun Okumura, a senior adviser and political analyst with the Eurasia Group. 'But that should not come as too much of a surprise as the politicians of the DPJ have always been in opposition until now, and they are now having to be far more careful with their words.'

Maehara's strong character was shaped by a tragic childhood and an eventful career. Born in Kyoto in April 1962, Maehara studied international politics at the elite Kyoto University and was elected to the prefectural assembly soon after his graduation.

His father stepped off a train platform into the path of an oncoming train when Maehara was 14, allegedly due to problems with debts. Maehara has told an interviewer that it took him 34 years to bring himself to talk about his father's suicide.

He was first elected to parliament at age 28 in 1993, as a member of the now-defunct Japan New Party, but left to join the Sakigake Party - one of the opposition groups that joined to form the DPJ.

After the party lost the 2005 election, Maehara and Kan were the two candidates vying for the position of the new party leader. Maehara won the contest by a razor-thin margin of two votes.

The media were quick to label him 'the Japanese Tony Blair'. Within six months, however, Maehara was forced to resign over a fake e-mail forged by a party politician in an attempt to tarnish the government.

The scandal was a bitter setback for the rising star. But Maehara bit the bullet and worked hard. He forged an unlikely alliance with his rival, Kan, and rebuilt his career.

Analysts in Japan are impressed by his decisiveness and resilience. Maehara showed his quality when he was transport minister. He stood up to party strongman Ichiro Ozawa over the issue of a fuel surcharge during a financial crisis at Japan Airlines.

But it was always foreign affairs where Maehara believed his calling lay. 'I would call him a national-security conservative who explicitly sees China as a threat and is very much in favour of a strong alliance with the United States,' said Okumura, pointing out that Maehara is the only member of the DPJ who falls into that category.

Ironically, Maehara's wife, Airi, grew up in Hong Kong and speaks some Cantonese and Putonghua, according to a diplomat based in Hong Kong. They even invited a Chinese diplomat to attend their wedding in 1995.

But when it comes to foreign policy, Maehara is a dyed-in-the-wool hawk towards China. One of his stated beliefs is that Japan should rewrite its constitution, which prohibits the country from exercising the right of collective self-defence. Some in Beijing have interpreted this as a move towards Japan rearming itself.

Maehara has not been shy about telling Beijing his opinions on China. In a 2005 speech he referred to China by saying: 'We can only control the expansion of its power by acting firmly and resolutely.'

He subsequently described China's growing military strength as 'a threat', saying relations with Beijing would be the biggest test of Japan's diplomatic mettle.

Just days into his new job, Maehara has shown no indication that his stance is softening. 'There are no territorial issues of any kind in the East China Sea,' he said shortly before inspecting the two coastguard patrol vessels involved in the collision incident. 'We should take a rigid and resolute response to any threat to Japan's sovereignty.'

Even after Japanese prosecutors released the Chinese captain - and as Beijing demanded an apology and compensation from Tokyo - Maehara indicated that he did not agree with the decision. On the sidelines of a UN session in New York, he said Japan would 'resolutely deal with' incidents in future.

Yet there are some who question his resolution in dealing with North Korea, and one academic has accused him of 'appeasing' Pyongyang.

'His stance against the Chinese Communist Party at the moment seems to be firm and reliable, but his attitude towards North Korea has been a problem in the past,' said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.

Shimada said Maehara criticised then prime minister Shinzo Abe for refusing to provide Pyongyang with fuel oil in return for halting operations at its nuclear facilities. 'He sees himself as a specialist in the field of national security and he seems to believe that the North Korean nuclear issue can be resolved through dialogue and quid pro quo,' Shimada said. 'And that is quite wrong. Appeasement will never work with Pyongyang.'

Whether Maehara will take a sterner line with North Korea in the months ahead remains to be seen. But he will hope to avoid another confrontation with that regime while he struggles to deal with differences of opinion on Japan's two most important international relationships.

But if he gets it right - given the revolving-door nature of Japanese politics - it is very likely that he might make the step up to prime minister when Kan decides the time is right to step down.

Additional reporting by staff reporters