The Abe cabinet’s reply to the DPJ maneuver illustrates perhaps the single most important problem in the US-Japan security relationship: there is an utter lack of vision of what the alliance ought to become and what role Japan ought to play in the relationship. For all the intensification of defense cooperation under Koizumi and Abe, it has been remarkably aimless. Defense cooperation to what end? Neither the LDP nor the DPJ (nor the US, for that matter) has a clear vision for Japan’s security role, once again undermining the idea that Japan is on a linear track to becoming a more significant security provider.
Take Mr. Ozawa’s emphasis on UN approval as a prerequisite for Japanese participation in international coalitions, even in the event of a crisis on the Korean peninsula for example. Some maintain, as noted by Matt Dioguardi, that Ozawa’s position on this is consistent. In a broad sense, this is true: Ozawa did emphasize the UN. But it was not necessarily in contradistinction to the US-Japan alliance. This is my summary of Ozawa’s position in my master’s thesis, based on his Blueprint for a New Japan and the work of the LDP’s Ozawa Committee (my apologies for being self-referential):
The basis of Ozawa’s ‘Japan as a normal nation’ position was that Japan could no longer be a ‘conscientious objector’ in international affairs; the tremendous stake it acquired in international peace and stability as it became an economic power meant that Japan also acquired responsibilities in maintaining peace and stability. Accordingly, preserving international peace and stability had little to do with remilitarizing so as to become a more independent player in the East Asian balance of power or a co-sheriff with the US. The alliance with the US is essential as a framework for cushioning Japan’s return to normalcy, but the focus of Japanese activities should be the UN. He called for the JSDF to be recalibrated for ‘peace-building’, which meant that it should become a more flexible, technology and knowledge intensive force that can contribute extensively to UN peacekeeping operations (PKO) and other UN-sanctioned missions. He did support a stronger US-Japan alliance, which endeared him to Americans, but as only one part of a Japanese foreign diplomacy that emphasized the UN and cooperation within East Asia.
Is Mr. Ozawa’s rejection of the anti-terrorism special measures law consistent with this position? I would argue that the DPJ’s position sounds suspiciously like the “conscientious objections” that Mr. Ozawa rejected in the early 1990s. Again, Afghanistan and Iraq are missions of a different color, the latter being a US war with a thin veil of multinational cooperation, the former being a broadly legitimate, multinational project to prevent Afghanistan from reverting to Taliban control and/or general lawlessness and state failure. To reject the Afghanistan mission because it was initially the product of a US war of self-defense is to split hairs for no purpose other than to cock a snook at the US.
In any case, the emphasis on the UN is not a vision for Japanese grand strategy but the absence of one. And given Ozawa’s insistence not only on UN approval, but on the mission’s being initiated by the UN (as opposed to being initiated by the US, apparently), his formula guarantees Japanese inactivity, at least in all but the most clear-cut cases. It also, in the case of a serious East Asian crisis, gives China (and Russia) veto power over Japan participating in a multinational coalition. Where is the discussion of Japan’s national interests? Where is the discussion of what Japan’s responsibilities are as a great power? No, defenders of Mr. Ozawa’s position are wrong to attribute higher principle to his opposition — other than the principle of a Japan less dependent on the US, as noted by Richard Tanter in this article at Japan Focus.
The government, however, is not blameless. As Nagashima Akihisa, one of the members of Maehara’s group, observes at his blog, the DPJ’s problem with the Afghanistan mission in the past has been the government’s insufficient explanation of what the mission has achieved before calling for votes on previous extension bills. He says that it’s “baffling” that the government has not called more attention to the Afghanistan mission’s multinational character. And he’s right. Defense Minister Koike’s rushing to Washington on short notice sends the wrong message to the Japanese people and effectively makes it easier for Mr. Ozawa to present the DPJ’s position as a matter of standing up to the US in defense of Japanese interests instead of Japan’s shirking its global responsibilities. The Koizumi-Abe line — the road to a “normal” Japan leads through closer alliance cooperation — is as devoid of vision as Mr. Ozawa’s emphasis on UN approval. It has resulted in Tokyo’s parroting of the Bush administration’s rhetoric and photo-op stunts like Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the troops in Kuwait in May, which in turn have cleared a path for a popular reaction to closer cooperation with the US rooted in fear of entrapment in American wars.
In short, neither the LDP’s nor the DPJ’s positions looks at Japanese grand strategy in terms of interests and responsibilities (the ends) and then considers how different means (the US-Japan alliance, the UN, regional fora) help Japan secure those ends. What we have instead is posturing, leaving Japan no closer to a new grand strategy that will enable Japan to defend itself and contribute to regional and global order. So Americans should not overreact to the DPJ’s opposition to the Afghanistan mission, and, at the same time, they should be less content with the leadership of Koizumi and Abe, who for all the symbolic measures taken in the past six years, have yet to articulate a clear vision of where Japan and the alliance should be going.