Japan says no (kind of)

Last week Japanese Defense Minister Kyuma Fumio criticized the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq as a “mistake.”

I held off from commenting right away, because I was curious to see what the US response would be, if any.

Now, after Kyuma repeated his criticism this weekend, prompting the State Department to protest to the Japanese Embassy in Washington, I figured some comment was in order.

I’m actually more dismayed by the US reaction to Kyuma’s comments than by the comments themselves. Kyuma’s comments are more or less irrelevant. Koizumi committed troops to the reconstruction of Iraq at the risk of political disapproval at home — and without a specific request from the US (see Daniel Kliman’s monograph from CSIS on this decision). The Bush administration got the support of another major liberal democracy, and Koizumi solidified his reputation as a daring risk-taker. So why should the Bush administration be all that concerned if a Japanese official decides to get on the bandwagon of people “reassessing” the Iraq war, especially after his country’s ground forces have already left Iraq?

Look, as Japan becomes a more active participant in international security, both within and outside — as indicated by Prime Minister Abe’s recent visit to Europe — the US-Japan alliance, the government of Japan may occasionally disagree with the US. A strong alliance will have no problem absorbing disagreements between the two governments, and may be even better for it.

Back in the late 1980s, Ishihara Shintaro, current governor of Tokyo and longtime enfant terrible, captured Japan’s economic triumphalist mood with his polemic, The Japan That Can Say No. Much of his argument crumbled with the bursting of Japan’s bubble, and in any case Japan had been saying no throughout the cold war in a subtle, indirect manner — the Yoshida Doctrine, by which Japan subordinated an active foreign policy to economic development, coupled with the US-bestowed postwar constitution, was a way of saying no to US desires for a more meaningful alliance.

What needs to happen now, as Japan seeks a greater international role, is that it needs to learn how to say no directly but constructively. “No, but…,” in other words. If Japan wants to opt out of US goals elsewhere in the world, that’s its prerogative. No bilateral agreement obligates Japan to contribute to US efforts anywhere aside from defending Japan within Japanese territory, and, theoretically anyway, the area surrounding Japan. But even if Japan is reluctant to support future US missions elsewhere, it will be expected to compensate in other ways: deeper cooperation between the two countries’ militaries in East Asia, greater participation in humanitarian missions in Asia and throughout the world, and political leadership within East Asian regional organizations on behalf of goals and ideals shared with the US.

So, in short, rather than focus narrowly on Kyuma’s comments, the US should be focused on how to strengthen the alliance, so that the bilateral activities overshadow whatever comments officials in either country might choose to make on issues of bilateral concern.

And this needs to happen sooner rather later, because of the looming question of what will happen when a Japanese soldier is killed abroad, especially if it happens in support of a US mission. The death of a Japanese soldier abroad could result in Japan saying no in a very loud way, and unless sufficient work to strengthen the alliance is done in advance, the alliance may be seriously wounded by a Japanese no in such a situation.

Meanwhile, I’m a curious as to whether Vice President Cheney will meet with Kyuma when he visits Japan next month. Given Cheney’s (lack of) generosity to domestic critics, I can only imagine the generosity he’ll extend to a foreign critic like Kyuma.

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