Japan PM Fukuda likely to build on Abe's Asia policy

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TOKYO, Oct 2 (Reuters) When it comes to diplomacy, Japan's new prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, is often seen as the complete opposite of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.

But analysts say actual policies under Fukuda, a dove known for advocating stronger ties with Asia in contrast to Abe's hawkish, US-centric stance, won't be that different after all.

And while the 71-year-old Fukuda prides himself on his knowledge of foreign affairs, he may have little manoeuvring room for diplomacy after taking over from Abe, whose year in office was marred by scandals and an election defeat that cost the ruling bloc its majority in the upper house.

''His emphasis on Asian diplomacy was confirmed in his policy speech, so China welcomes that, and so does South Korea,'' Tomoyuki Kojima, a professor at Tokyo's Keio University and a China expert, said today.

''But in terms of what comes out on the surface, it won't be much different from diplomacy under Abe. We're not in a situation where we can expect a drastic shift in Japan-China ties.'' Abe managed to improve ties with Japan's Asian neighbours with a fence-mending trip to Beijing and Seoul last October, despite being known for talking tough on China before assuming office.

In his first policy speech to parliament on Monday, Fukuda spoke of promoting ''active diplomacy towards Asia'' while maintaining that the alliance with the United States was the cornerstone of Japanese diplomacy.

Fukuda is likely to visit China by the end of the year, living up to a promise made under Abe, and Japanese officials have said they hope to have him visit the United States in November.

He has also vowed to continue a naval mission supporting US-led military operations in Afghanistan, saying the refuelling provided by Japanese ships in the Indian Ocean are praised by the international community. However, the opposition parties are determined to vote down an extension in the upper house.

NO GOING BACK TO THE FUTURE Fukuda's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wants to extend beyond a Nov. 1 expiry date the mission backing up a coalition of nations policing waters in the area. Some analysts say if Japan were to pull out, that could sour relations with Washington.

''If Japan turns its back, then it would come under criticism from the international community,'' said Takehiko Yamamoto, a political science professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.

''There's no going back to the future,'' he said.

Regardless of Fukuda's apparent dovishness, Japan has already committed itself to playing a greater global security role, departing from the post-war policy of putting the economy first and keeping a low security profile, Yamamoto added.

While analysts say Fukuda's views are closer to the post-war policy compared to Abe, he would be forced to make compromises with those who share Abe's agenda of revamping the ''post-war regime'', including revising the pacifist constitution.

Fukuda's only rival in the LDP party race, former foreign minister Taro Aso, who shares many of Abe's conservative views, managed to win more support among party members than expected, in an apparent sign of disapproval of Fukuda's dovish views.

''Fukuda won't be able to maintain his government without the support of all the party factions,'' said Kiichi Fujiwara, political science professor at University of Tokyo.

''So he would have to make compromises with the radicals.'' Fujiwara also said in addition to giving heed to intra-party dynamics, Fukuda would face deadlock in parliamentary debate given the opposition's control of the upper house.

While the ruling coalition can override the upper house vote by using its two-thirds majority in the more powerful lower house, the rarely-used method would certainly invite charges of resorting to strong-handed ways.

''He would have his hands full trying to manage such domestic issues and would hardly have a chance to take initiative in diplomacy,'' Fujiwara said.

REUTERS ARB PM1550

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