Is Japan on the brink of a new foreign policy debate?

With another week of budget committee deliberations and thus another week before the Fukuda Cabinet officially decides to proceed with a new bill authorizing the MSDF refueling mission in the Indian Ocean, Mainichi reports that the government is striving to build upon the public support it has already gained, as shown in numerous public opinion polls. The goal, as enunciated by Yamasaki Taku on multiple occasions, is to gain around two-thirds support from the public so that the government can pass a rejected bill again in the Lower House with confidence that it can weather a censure vote in the Upper House.

For my part, I think a new bill will ultimately pass, even if the government has to wait until late December to get it. By now, the stakes for the LDP and for Japan are such that the government will say or do anything to outmaneuver the DPJ into getting its way, even having Mr. Ishiba accuse Mr. Ozawa of having a cavalier attitude towards the lives of JSDF personnel (discussed in this post). It’s nothing short of extraordinary how quickly the DPJ has gone from confident and united to divided and uncertain, and the LDP from open civil war to calm and unified, insofar as the MSDF mission is concerned.

If the new terror law passes, however, it will be on the grounds enunciated by Mr. Fukuda during the LDP presidential campaign: Japan needs to continue to participate in the multinational operation to preserve its international reputation.

Tanaka Hitoshi, former administrative vice minister of foreign affairs and an ally of Prime Minister Fukuda’s when the latter was chief cabinet secretary, elaborates this argument at some length in an interview in Chuo Koron conducted by political journalist Tahara Soichiro.

Mr. Tanaka is not without doubts about how the mission has been conducted — he says at one point, “Of course, I think it’s essential to raise the transparency concerning the JSDF operation” — but he is unequivocal about the need to extend the mission, preferably on the basis of bipartisan consensus. “At this time,” he said, “If Japan completely withdraws from the Afghan operation, how much will it harm national interests? — this is probably well understood by Fukuda-san. I think that all effort will expended in aiming to extend the operation. Moreover, even in the DPJ there are proponents of extending the special measures law.”

The interview from which this discussion is drawn concerns Japan’s post-Abe foreign policy as a whole, and is worth reading for a glimpse at what can be called the realist position in Japan’s foreign policy establishment. (It’s available in two parts, one and two, at Yahoo’s Minna no Seiji.) Mr. Tanaka questions the idealism of Messrs. Koizumi and Abe, criticizing the former’s Yasukuni visits and the latter’s emphasis on the abductee question in relations with North Korea. The phrase “national interests” appears regularly in his remarks, and he does not indulge in the idealistic fancies that some politicians prefer — he makes a point of dismissing the utility of the US-Japan-Australia-India quartet as unnecessarily hostile to China. Mr. Tanaka’s approach is not altogether surprising for a former senior MOFA official, but it provides a valuable look at a way of thinking not altogether different from Mr. Fukuda’s. It is a foreign policy for a middling power sensitive to its position in the region and the world, conscious of its own limits, and keen to maximize its options. For example, the alliance with the US is important, but it should be but one pillar of Japanese foreign policy. (Interestingly, it was an expression of this way of thinking about Japanese foreign policy in the 1994 Higuchi Commission report that contributed to Washington’s refocusing its attention on the US-Japan alliance after the deep freeze following the cold war.) If Mr. Fukuda manages to last “between one month and ten years,” I would expect Japan’s foreign policy to move further in this direction: less emphasis on the US-Japan relationship, less concern with democracy, and more focus on Asian institutions and shared regional leadership with China.

The question is whether this approach would outlast Mr. Fukuda, regardless of whether the next occupant of the Kantei is an LDP or DPJ premier. As far as the LDP is concerned, Mr. Aso and his conservative idealism remain a potent force within the party, as elaborated by Komori Yoshihisa at his blog. Even as old-style mainstream conservatism enjoys something of a resurgence under Mr. Fukuda, Mr. Aso will remain a forceful advocate in the anti-mainstream, calling for a more confident Japan that forcefully promotes universal values like liberty, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and capitalism. I, like Mr. Tanaka, am skeptical about the efficacy of Abe-Aso “assertive diplomacy,” because I have yet to see it accomplish anything but Japan’s not-so-splendid isolation.

Perhaps one of the best things Mr. Fukuda can do once the battle of the anti-terror law is complete would be to articulate a “realistic” vision for Japanese foreign policy that reassesses Japan’s ends and means in light of its status as a middling power. How can Japan become more “European” in its foreign policy, allied to the US, dependent even to some extent, while still capable of disagreeing and having a full-developed Asian “alternative” to its partnership with the US? What place should Japan’s military power have in this scheme (and from that, a practical plan for revising the constitution)? I would argue that doing so would put the realists in a better position than their conservative idealist rivals, who have yet to articulate their vision beyond emphasizing the alliance with the US and a more active role for the JSDF abroad.

Mr. Fukuda’s surprising ascendancy to the head of the LDP may prove beneficial for Japan’s evolving foreign policy thinking, because it may force both ideologues and realists to better articulate their plans and ideas. With luck, Japan could be on the brink of a true renaissance in its foreign policy thinking, resulting as much from an intra-LDP debate as a debate between the LDP and the DPJ (the latter may remain stunted as long as the DPJ’s own position remains muddled).

One thought on “Is Japan on the brink of a new foreign policy debate?

  1. Anonymous

    I agree with the general tenor of your remarks in this commentary. At this time of turbulence in international affairs Japan can ill afford the ideological disunity evident within both the LDP and DPJ but since this appears to be the case, the importance of leadership has never been more critical. When Ozawa announced that he was opposed to refueling allied ships in the Indian Ocean because of the political implications regarding Japan\’s support for either US, UN, or NATO operations I was sympathetic to his views. But his recent shift to supporting ISAF in Afghanistan with JSDF forces showed that he was inconsistent to his original ideas on collective security. The Fukuda cabinet\’s quick reprimand of Ozawa\’s remarks citing the illegality of JSDF deployment to Afghanistan, was a revelation because Abe was not clear (as on many other matters) on this point. Both parties clearly are internally divided on international security issues, hence to reiterate the quality of leadership is critical at this point in history.


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