Locking horns in the Budget Committee

On Tuesday the Budget Committee of the Lower House of the Diet convened; the Budget Committee, of course, is the main stage for clashes between government and opposition, and will provide Mr. Fukuda with plenty of time to elaborate on his policy plans, if he indeed has any.

While there are a host of economic issues that will be discussed — there will no doubt be some spirited exchanges on the pensions issue — the debate over a new bill authorizing the MSDF mission in the Indian will indubitably overshadow everything else. The debate has been transformed somewhat with Mr. Ozawa’s declaration last week that he has no problem with Japan’s sending ground troops as part of ISAF even as he maintains that the refueling mission is unconstitutional. Mainichi asks what Mr. Ozawa’s motive is for purposing this new step, but, as I argued last week, the new proposal should by no means be considered inconsistent with Mr. Ozawa’s history. In fact, it probably marks a return to the Ozawa that earned the plaudits of Americans for his advocacy of a “normal” Japan. The government has fiercely dismissed Mr. Ozawa’s proposal — Defense Minister Ishiba went so far as to describe Mr. Ozawa as “being callous about the lives of SDF members,” which seems a bit rich coming from the self-described “defense otaku.”

Indeed, as Mainichi wrote regarding Mr. Ishiba’s rebuttal and Kan Naoto’s defense of Mr. Ozawa, “We now have the ‘topsy-turvy’ [the article uses nejire, literally ‘twisted,’ but I think topsy-turvy gets closer to the idea] spectacle of Mr. Ishiba’s advancing traditional ‘defend the constitution’ arguments and Mr. Kan’s advancing arguments in favor of the proactive dispatch of troops abroad.”

The government is not likely to cave on its plan for sticking to refueling at sea. In the Diet today, Mr. Fukuda reiterated that the MSDF mission is constitutional, and no doubt consciously contrasted the government’s position with the DPJ’s by saying, “This action does not entail the use of force prohibited by Article 9 of the Constitution, and thus is not in violation of the Constitution.” Indeed, Mr. Ozawa may have made it easier for the government to pass its new law, and the LDP will presumably push to contrast the government’s “responsible” position with Mr. Ozawa’s “reckless” position at every turn. Not surprisingly, former LDP secretary-general Nakagawa Hidenao called for a direct debate between Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Ozawa focused on this issue.

I have a hard time seeing how Mr. Ozawa will get his way on the issue. Indeed, he may have guaranteed that the government gets its way, with full public support, by suggesting an armed approach that is not only unlikely to receive the support of the Japanese people, but also likely to draw considerable opposition from within the DPJ. Even while being right — and I think he is, because contributing to ISAF is exactly what Japan should be doing if it’s serious about normalizing its security policy — I can’t see this gambit as serving any purpose other than signaling to observers that Mr. Ozawa and his party aren’t the do-nothing pacifists that they have been painted as since coming out against the extension of the anti-terror law. Accordingly, within the DPJ the “realistic” option for an alternative bill is proposing civilian aid to PRTs, which means that Japanese personnel will still need to be defended by some other country’s military.

That said, the government still has work to do on building support for its new bill, as much within the LDP as within the government at large. Mainichi suggests that some members of the LDP are concerned about the threat posed to civilian control by the new law’s waiving of the requirement that both houses approve the dispatch. And one of the central questions I have about the Budget Committee hearings is whether the DPJ will be able to get some traction on the issue of Japanese fuel being used by US warships participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Foreign Minister Komura has stated once again — based on information received from the US — that no Japanese fuel was diverted, but I don’t think this will end the discussion, nor should it. The DPJ will comb through whatever it can find, in the hope of getting a snowball effect in public opposition to the government, much like it achieved in the spring with revelations about lost pensions.

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