The long-awaited blow to the US-Japan alliance has been landed, even as the Fukuda government has agreed to go along with the US move.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Fukuda said that he hoped this would contribute to progress on the nuclear front, even as he said that he looks forward to further cooperation with the US in resolving the abductions issue. At the same time, Machimura Nobutaka, in a press conference Tuesday morning, cautioned the US to examine the North Korean report carefully before proceeding, a lame statement of the sheer helplessness of the Fukuda government’s position.
The US will go forward, and the Japanese government will follow along meekly behind — ignoring the wishes of the conservatives (and a bulk of the Japanese public) that North Korea should stay on the list until it follows through on the latest agreement on the abductees. They want North Korea’s position on the terrorism list to remain linked to acts of terrorism (however long ago they occurred); the US, perhaps acknowledging that North Korea is no longer a state sponsor of terrorism (at least against other countries), is prepared to link removal to another, arguably more important issue. As argued in an article in this week’s AERA, this latest move may trigger a spasm of protest from the public. It will be the latest and perhaps greatest charge in the conservative case against Mr. Fukuda: giving in to both the US and North Korea and abandoning the abductees, while getting nothing but an oral promise from the US that it will continue to pressure North Korea on the abductees. This probably destroys whatever chance Mr. Fukuda had of staying in power long enough to lead the LDP into the next general election.
That said, it is worth asking how Abe Shinzo would have handled this had it happened under his watch as prime minister.
His admirers seem to think that he would have been able to say no to the US. The bloggers at Pride of Japan ended a post on this issue with the statement, “I think that the time demands the appearance of a politician with backbone, like former Prime Minister Abe.”
But would Mr. Abe have stood up to the US in this case and said no, his government will not support removing North Korea from the list? What would he do instead? What could he do instead? Would he respond by tightening Japanese sanctions even more? A US move to lift sanctions on North Korea makes Japan’s sanctions, no matter how astringent, that much less effective. What would rejecting the US position at this point do but isolate Japan further and make it even less likely that North Korea would cooperate in resolving the abductions issue? Mr. Abe might have spoken in harsh terms, he might have appealed directly to President Bush for a promise that the US will continue to help on the abductions, but ultimately I suspect that Mr. Abe too would fall into line.
I am fine with the turn that the six-party talks are taking. I think that the gain of neutralizing North Korea’s nuclear program is a worthy goal, and that it should take priority to issues like the abductions issue. If lifting sanctions bit by bit — effectively a series of small bribes — moderates North Korea’s behavior and buys the region’s powers some time to plan for the tsunami of instability that will likely follow Kim Jong-il’s death by keeping the Korean Peninsula stable, then the talks will have been successful. The US has had little choice but to talk (and to talk with China’s assistance) because it had no other option short of doing nothing. Mr. Hill has made the most of a poor situation. All of which is why I opposed the Abe government’s pulling Japan out of this process. Japan, like the US, had no real way to compel North Korea to change its behavior. As the country that may be most threatened by a nuclear North Korea, it should have been in the lead, alongside the US and China, in finding a way to defuse the situation, if not disarm North Korea. Instead it opted out of the process, on the grounds of North Korea intransgience on the abductees.
I have little sympathy with the argument that the abductees are a primary “national interest,” on the grounds that the Japanese government must secure the lives of every Japanese citizen. (Mr. Abe makes a variation of this argument at length in Utsukushi kuni e.) Does it rank somewhere on the list of Japanese national interests? Probably. Is it a top interest that should take priority over other interests like, say, stability on the Korean Peninsula, good relations with Japan’s neighbors, and a diminished threat from North Korea? I would argue no. The deal may yet fall apart due to another shift by North Korea or domestic opposition in the US (Steve Clemons has the details on the situation in Washington) — but given the lack of other options, it has been a useful effort, one in which Japan should have played more than a begrudging role.
The failure of the US to explain its reasoning more fully — and the failure of Japan to be more flexible in its defense of its national interests — have resulted in a blow to the alliance, in that both Japanese elites and the Japanese public have lost confidence in the US as an ally. That blow may have been unavoidable: I suspect that part of the reason for the loss of confidence, especially among elites, is that after Japan gave its full-throated support to the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would receive equally full-throated support in dealing with North Korea. The US wasted opportunities to disabuse Japan of that idea and left Mr. Hill to bear the brunt of Japanese anger; the president should have made it explicitly clear why the US shifted on North Korea. But even then it is likely that there would still be a feeling of betrayal among Japanese.
Where will the US-Japan relationship go from here? The alliance will survive, but I expect that future Japanese governments will be less trusting of the US. I would not go so far as journalist Aoki Naoto (author of a book entitled A State That Could Become An Enemy: USA), who argues that this is the beginning of an antagonistic relationship between the US and Japan and the start of a US-China security relationship. In fact, the US shift on North Korea might prove to be a good thing for the alliance. As a result of having been “abandoned” in the six-party talks, Japan may finally learn to say no to the US, which could result in a stronger, more effective partnership in which Japan feels less obligated to do whatever the US asks. Much like Japan’s 1990 failure in responding to the Gulf crisis led to a decade of soul-searching for Japan’s foreign policy establishment, so too might this incident prompt soul-searching that leads to a Japan better able to articulate its interests to the US, even if it means disagreement between Washington and Tokyo.
As in the aftermath of the Gulf crisis, Ozawa Ichiro may show the way. Asked to comment on the developments in the six-party talks, Mr. Ozawa stated that Japan has little ability to influence US strategy, and added on the abductees, “The US has until now said good things to the abductee families, but it did not take our national strategy and our interests into account at all.” I expect that should the DPJ form a government in the near future, it will be much less inclined to follow the US in the way that LDP governments have (especially LDP governments under Messrs. Koizumi and Abe).
As a result of the six-party talks, future LDP governments may share Mr. Ozawa’s assessment.