Koike opens a second front

As the skirmishes over the extension of the anti-terror special measures law intensify, Defense Minister Koike Yuriko has decided to take the fight to Washington, DC at the same time that DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro met with US Ambassador Thomas Schieffer.

On Wednesday morning, Koike met with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who expressed his appreciation of the role played by Japan in the war on terror. She also met with Vice President Cheney, who thanked Japan for its support in Afghanistan and Iraq and took care to note Japan’s long-term importance due to the rapid rise of Chinese military power. Koike, meanwhile, used the occasion to criticize Ozawa for his hypocrisy in having pushed hard for Japanese involvement in the Gulf War but opting to back away from support for Japanese contributions in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Chief Cabinet Secretary Shiozaki in Tokyo also contributed to the offensive against Ozawa, citing the deaths of Japanese citizens on 9/11 to illustrate the part Japan has to play in the war on terror.)

I think it is a mistake on the part of the Bush administration to encourage Japan to think of its contribution in Afghanistan as contributions to the alliance. Doing so encourages Japanese citizens to associate a minor supporting role in a broad coalition of countries participating in the reconstruction of Afghanistan with serving as spearcarrier for the wholly unpopular Bush administration. MTC is right to point out just how much unease there is with the US across the political spectrum — I am constantly amazed at just how anxious Japanese seem to be about being entrapped in an American war. At the same time, however, no matter how inconsequential Japan’s material contributions are in the Indian Ocean, it is important that Japan is there, for reasons having nothing to do with Japan’s relationship with the US.

There is no question that Japanese foreign policy is America-centric to a degree unhealthy for both Japan and the US. The US shouldn’t want a Japan that is incapable of acting on its own and feels it necessary to follow along with the US even when its interests aren’t at stake — because that constrains the US to some extent. At the same time, the Japanese government must not be left in a position where it is forced to follow the US even against its own interests, because it has no choice. The extension of the bill permitting Japanese support in the Indian Ocean is an excellent opportunity to recast Japan’s activities as part of a broader coalition that enjoys the imprimatur of the UN, Ozawa’s sophistry about its being post-facto support notwithstanding. Yes, the war may have began as the US response to 9/11, but by now the reconstruction of Afghanistan is a broadly legitimate if under-supported mission to ensure that the country does not revert to wholesale lawlessness, an open wound in the heart of Eurasia.

MTC mentions that there is no constituency for renewal. He’s right — but that’s not a good thing, and it means that Japan’s political leadership needs to be ever more diligent in making the case that Japan does in fact have a role to play, however small and far from the battlefield. The fact that there is no constituency for renewal, that to the Japanese people it’s all the same whether or not the JSDF serves in coalitions abroad, means that it will be remarkably easy for Japan to backslide into the easy life of a security consumer (which undermines the idea, expressed by Norimitsu Onishi and others, that Japan is on a linear track to becoming a more formidable security actor in the region and the world). Doing so would, of course, result in a Japan as dependent on the US as ever.

As such, a mooted DPJ plan that would call for a withdrawal from Iraq, reported in the FT earlier this week, might be a way for Japan to distance itself from the US while at the same time reaffirming its commitment to bear some of the burden for global order by extending the MSDF mission in the Indian Ocean. Of course, thanks to the Abe government’s response to the DPJ call to reject the latter — huddling close to the US by sending Koike-san to DC — it will be harder for the government to convince the Japanese people that the Afghanistan mission is anything but a contribution to the alliance with the US. If Japan is to take a different approach to this issue — rejecting Japan’s slavishly following the US, while reaffirming Japan’s commitment to contribute to global security in some trifling way — the DPJ will have to articulate this line. Mr. Maehara and his followers may be of some use in this respect should the party leadership choose to change course. (I agree with MTC that the chances of Mr. Maehara’s leaving the party are slim at best, and that having egregiously bungled his leadership of the DPJ, no one seems to be in a hurry to give him the reins again.)

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