The domestic constraints on Japanese foreign policy

Prime Minister Fukuda, originally scheduled to visit Germany, Britain, and France as well as Russia during the Japanese political world’s Golden Week holiday in early May, has changed his plans, announcing that he will be restricting his travels to a trip to Russia 25-27 April to meet with Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. The reason given for the change of plans is domestic politics, namely the revenue bill containing the temporary tax that the HR will be able to vote for again from 29 April.

Machimura Nobutaka, the chief cabinet secretary, once again took the shocked and disappointed pose he’s taken in recent remarks on the political situation.

“It is a major principle throughout the world that partisan confrontation should not cross borders, but I’m sorry to say that this hasn’t happened.”

Does politics, in Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s words, actually stop at the water’s edge? I think in any democracy Senator Vandenberg’s remark is more aspirational than descriptive, and thus Mr. Machimura’s disappointment is a bit rich.

And really, I don’t know why he’s disappointed. The DPJ isn’t questioning Mr. Fukuda’s aims in traveling to Europe and Russia. The only reason he won’t be able to go is because the Fukuda government wants to be in a position to reinstate the temporary gasoline tax. If Mr. Fukuda is so concerned about summitry, then he could just as easily forgo reinstating the tax and stick to his original itinerary. The DPJ is doing what it thinks is best by opposing the temporary tax and going slow on deliberation on the bill in the HC, just as the LDP is doing what it thinks best by pushing for the temporary tax to be restored.

In short, no one is to blame for Mr. Fukuda’s changing his plans. The reality is that for the foreseeable future Mr. Fukuda and his successors will be restricted in their freedom of action in foreign policy. As long as the domestic agenda is crowded and the people insecure about the soundness of public institutions, prime ministers will be penalized for paying too much attention to matters beyond Japan’s borders — and the public discussion will likely not stray into matters related to the constitution and collective self-defense. As long as Japan’s finances are in disrepair, defense budgets will remain constrained.

The contrast with the Koizumi era is telling. Arguably Mr. Koizumi had a freer hand in foreign and defense policy because of the public support he enjoyed as a result of domestic initiatives. His zeal for reform bought him space with which to pursue a more energetic foreign policy.

Perhaps Aso Taro imagines that his popularity will buy him similar space with which to pursue an assertive foreign policy such as he envisioned during his time as foreign minister. I suspect, however, that if Mr. Aso gets his chance, he too will find that foreign policy will take a back seat to concerns closer to home.

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