Breathing Room for Japan’s Fukuda

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda must have breathed a sigh of relief, at least for a couple months, as the Diet adjourned last week for the summer, giving him a respite from the debilitating confrontations with the opposition-controlled upper house of parliament that have dogged his months in office.

The embattled premier seems to have arrested the steady slide in the popularity of his government, which a month ago had fallen to 20 percent approval, and for the moment speculation over a possible successor or a general election has abated. He has achieved his immediate goal of hosting the G-8 summit in a Hokkaido in a couple weeks.

Fukuda shrugged off a motion to censure the premier that passed the House of Councillors June 11 as if it were a mosquito bite. In a way it was a milestone – no post-war Japanese premier has ever been censured before. But as it had no binding force, it was irrelevant – worse, it was pointless.

Opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa had been pressing for such a vote for months, seemingly convinced that it would cause the Fukuda government to crumble. But as it came in the context of fairly routine legislation concerning health care for the aged rather than any malfeasance by the premier, it lacked any moral punch and was seen for what it was, a purely political ploy.

Meanwhile, the government could point to a solid accomplishment with announcement last week of an agreement with China to share development of oil and gas reserves in the East China Sea, an area of potential conflict. Japan will invest in exploration and exploitation of two sites straddling the median line, halfway between the two countries, in return for a share of the profits.

The agreement sidesteps the knotty question of which country, under international law, is actually entitled to the undersea resources, which most experts say are fairly modest. Left undecided was whether exploitation of undersea resources ends at the median line, half way between China and Japan (Tokyo’s position) or at the end of the continental shelf much closer to Japan (Beijing’s position).

Tokyo pulled out the stops to hail the deal, pushing two senior cabinet members in front of the cameras. They included Foreign Minister Masahiro Koumura, who said that the agreement “proves that Japan and China can solve difficulties together.”

China was much more circumspect in its handling of the announcement. It was left to a foreign ministry spokeswoman to announce Beijing’s agreement and to remind everyone that the boundary issue remains unsettled. “China does not recognize the so-called middle line.” said Jiang Yu. She made it plain China was not giving an inch on sovereignty

Fukuda has made improving relations with China a major theme of his administration. Relations had reached a nadir under former Prime Minister Junichi Koizumi. His successor, Shinzo Abe, had made a start in improving relations which Fukuda has built on. He hosted a highly successful visit in May by China’s president Hu Jintao.

Such were the good feelings lingering from the visit that after the disastrous Sichuan earthquake, the Japanese entertained the idea of sending relief supplies into the Chinese interior on Air Self-Defense Force cargo planes. Even Beijing seemed agreeable until cooler heads decided this might be taking the feelings of good will too far.

Even so, a Japanese destroyer arrived in China to make the first port call by a ship flying the Rising Sun flag since the end of World War II. It reciprocates a visit last November by the Chinese destroyer Shenzhen to Tokyo Bay. However, the two sides did pick a fairly obscure port of call, Zhanjiang in Guangdong province, rather than, say Shanghai or even Hong Kong.

It remains to be seen if the current thaw will last long past the summer because it is, in part, a product of Beijing’s desire not to do anything that would spoil the Beijing Olympic Games, in which it has invested an enormous amount of prestige. After that more potentially antagonistic interests may reassert themselves.

Ironically, the gas and oil field compromise came just as another East China Sea border issue flared. A Japanese coast guard ship collided with (rammed, say the Taiwanese) a pleasure fishing boat in waters claimed by Japan off the uninhabited Senkaku islands (known as Daioyutai by the Chinese). All members of the boat were rescued.

Taipei recalled its unofficial ambassador to Japan and sent a boatload of demonstrators into waters off Senkaku waters escorted by half a dozen Taiwanese coast guard boats. Tokyo protested this intrusion into what it called its territorial waters.

Fukuda benefits from the fact that several developments such as the recent earthquake on northern Honchu island and the shocking attack on pedestrians in downtown Tokyo by a deranged man with a knife, who killed seven people and injured 10 others, has tended to push political news off the front pages and television newscasts.

The summer vacation may be short lived, however. The Diet returns into session in late August, and with it come more opportunities for gridlock and confrontation. High on the agenda will be Fukuda’s plan to divert gasoline taxes away from road construction to the general fund, which will bring him into conflict with many in his own party whose elections depend on support from the construction industry.

Other potentially difficult issues include raising the sales tax and potentially another political donnybrook over renewing once again authority for Japanese navy ships to support coalition operations in the Indian Ocean. But things are not completely smooth for the opposition either as Ichiro Ozawa is up for re-election as party president in September, and there is discontent in party ranks over some of his tactics.