Japan tries to loosen the U.S. leashAug 12th, 2009 | By editor | Category: Opinion, Viewing News
The expected victory of the opposition Democratic Party in Japan’s August 30 general election is creating a new element of uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific region, already unsettled by North Korea’s war drums and China’s assertiveness. The ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party has held power for 52 of the past 53 years. It is the political linchpin of the U.S.-Japanese alliance. Now, largely due to lamentable domestic policy failures, opinion polls suggest it is all but dead in the water.
The centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), ahead by up to 20 points in some surveys, is committed, on paper at least, to a radical reappraisal of Japan’s postwar defence partnership with Washington. Its manifesto pledges to “re-examine the role of the U.S. military in the security of the Asia-Pacific region and the significance of U.S. bases in Japan.” Questions have been raised about the continuing presence of roughly 50,000 American troops on Japanese soil and, more broadly, about Japan’s military support for U.S. operations in Iraq and now in Afghanistan.
At the same time, DPJ leaders are advocating improved ties with former adversaries, notably China and South Korea, strained during the 2001-2006 premiership of Junichiro Koizumi. Party chief Yukio Hatoyama has vowed not to follow Koizumi in paying respects to Japan’s war dead at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, seen in Beijing as a symbol of unrepentant Japanese militarism.
Speaking at a conference in Tokyo on Monday, Katsuya Okada, the DPJ’s second-in-command, said the party wanted an equal relationship with the Obama administration. “There are various issues of concern between Japan and the US. It is necessary … to work on changing systems based on trust,” he said. Japan lacked independence, he complained. “If Japan just follows what the U.S. says, then I think as a sovereign nation that is very pathetic.”
Okada expressed impatience with the pace of international nuclear disarmament, a sensitive issue in Japan. Although his party welcomed Barack Obama’s call for a nuclear-free world, he suggested Japan should pursue its own disarmament and non-proliferation policies. These and other apparently game-changing DPJ positions have led to talk of a generational shift in Japanese politics, bringing to office leaders who have no personal memories, guilty or otherwise, of the war, and no particular reason to thank the U.S. for the postwar alliance.
For all the chat about mould-breaking, a sharp reality check may await the DPJ. Take the nuclear issue: as Prime Minister Taro Aso noted in Hiroshima last week, Japan continues to benefit from the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” when it comes to threats from North Korea, just as during the cold war. While most Japanese supported the abolition of nuclear weapons, he said, such a development was unlikely in the foreseeable future, whatever the DPJ might do or say.
Despite its talk of Asian outreach, the DPJ has already confirmed it will adhere to Aso’s tough line on North Korea’s nukes and missiles and the long-running issue of Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang. It will also continue with a $3.1bn missile defence programme jointly developed with the U.S.
In a similarly realistic vein, the DPJ admitted this week that, growing economic interdependence notwithstanding, China’s rising military spending was a concern. But there was not much it could do. “There is no option for us to be in a military conflict. We should not be in an arms race but rather aiming to reduce arms in the future,” Okada said. Japan is struggling with its worst postwar recession, while China is its top two-way trading partner and its biggest 2008 export market — after the U.S.
The DPJ reacted cautiously last week to a government defence review that recommended easing constitutional constraints to allow Japan’s military to expand co-operation with the U.S. In truth, its circumspection reflects splits within the party about how far to go, if at all, in loosening the U.S leash.
Nor will the U.S. voluntarily relax its close embrace just because some new faces show up at Tokyo head office next month. According to Harvard professor Joseph Nye, Washington attaches high priority to its Japanese alliance. Shared concerns ranging from China to pandemics, terrorism and failed states would bind the U.S. and Japan more closely than ever in the 21st century, he predicted. It’s a lesson other long-time U.S. allies have learned. Whatever DPJ leaders may think, there’s no escaping America when it doesn’t want to be escaped. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009