Wrote Chris Nelson, eponymous author of the Nelson Report, the indispensable newsletter on US Asia policy:
Japan’s political leadership has never successfully restored adult supervision in balancing the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and offensive missile threat vs the heartbreaking humanitarian issue of the “abductees.”
As a consequence, Japan has played itself out of a central role in dealing with its most obvious strategic threat, and has compounded the failure by blaming it all on the US.
Opposition leader Ozawa today distinguished himself by saying that Bush’s decision to start the de-listing process, in order to proceed with the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, shows that “…Japanese people now realize that the United States never takes into consideration Japan’s wishes when making a decision.”
I have a hard time taking issue with this interpretation of the split on North Korea; I made the same argument earlier this week in this post.
I will attempt, however, to defend Mr. Ozawa from detractors in Washington who have jumped on this latest remark as more evidence of a pronounced anti-American streak in Mr. Ozawa’s thinking that will taint the foreign policy of an Ozawa-led DPJ government.
What is Mr. Ozawa’s purpose in making this statement?
In all likelihood, Mr. Ozawa made this statement with domestic considerations in mind. Indeed, everything that Mr. Ozawa says and does should be considered in light of its consequences for the DPJ’s position in the next general election. Will the position outlined help or hurt the DPJ in its campaign to unseat the LDP? Mr. Ozawa today is the consummate political animal. That may not have been the case at one time, when he was the great hope for reformers domestically and alliance managers in Washington who thought that under his leadership Japan might become a normal nation.
As Shiota Ushio wrote of the DPJ’s embrace of Mr. Ozawa in Minshuto no kenkyu:
Ozawa has been called an ‘ideas and policy politician.’ More than this, the hidden side of the ‘political situation and political game politician’ is Ozawa’s true self.
On the other hand, the ‘ideas and policy DPJ’ has structural flaws as a party, being conspicuously weak and fragile in its ability to respond to the political situation, its governance and management abilities, its election strategy, and its organization. Does ‘political situation and political game Ozawa’ plan to remake the DPJ’s longstanding image as a ‘ideas and policy party,’ and with that, does he aim to fix the DPJ’s structural flaws and strengthen the party?” (269-270)
Mr. Ozawa’s behavior in the two years since taking control of the DPJ — and Mr. Shiota’s own analysis — suggest that the answer to both questions is yes. For Mr. Ozawa, political calculations take priority over policy considerations, a trait that has frustrated certain DPJ members and American Japan hands to no end.
Accordingly, his statement on the US government’s never taking into account the wishes of the Japanese people is less a criticism of the US government than of the LDP for its handling of the US-Japan alliance. A report at the DPJ website of the press conference where Mr. Ozawa made this statement provides context for the remark, context that is lacking from the Mainichi article from which Mr. Nelson quoted.
At the press conference — which, it is important to note, was held in Okinawa — Mr. Ozawa spoke on the alliance at length, not just on the Korean question. He addressed problems with the realignment of US forces in Japan, and in Okinawa in particular. His speaking in Okinawa should immediately set off a red flag. As noted previously, the DPJ has struggled in Okinawa in the past (Okinawa’s lower house delegation currently has no DPJ members) and has tailored its policies on the realignment of US forces in Okinawa accordingly. Therefore, it is no surprise that in his remarks he embedded his criticism of the US shift on North Korea in a discussion of the problems with US bases in Okinawa and the status of forces agreement.
“To have a true alliance relationship, it is absolutely necessary that it be equal,” he said. He then proceeded to criticize the LDP for failing to create a more equal alliance: “Under the current LDP administration, the US-Japan alliance cannot be called an alliance. This SOFA makes that perfectly clear.”
It is this thread — that the LDP has failed in its management of the alliance — that runs throughout Mr. Ozawa’s remarks in this press conference. Mr. Ozawa was primarily concerned with criticizing the LDP and making the case for a DPJ government to an Okinawan audience; he was not necessarily criticizing the US, at least not on North Korea.
Indeed, Mr. Ozawa recognizes that the US will make policy decisions based on its own assessment of its interests. He reserves his criticism instead for the LDP and its allies in the bureaucracy, both of whom he claims failed to recognize how the US makes its decisions.
“The decision by our largest ally America to lift [the terror sponsor designation] is a decision based on its own national interests and global strategy,” he said.
“It is a tragedy for the Japanese people and a tragedy of LDP-Komeito politics that the government, that the bureaucracy has no recognition of this.”
In short, Mr. Ozawa was making an election pitch to the people of Okinawa in this press conference. He was arguing that LDP governments over the past seven years have failed to stand up for Japan and have failed to articulate and defend Japan’s national interests, preferring instead to hope that the US will defend Japan’s national interests. Again, his position is less critical of the US for “abandoning” Japan than critical of LDP-led governments for leaving Japan in a position to feel abandoned in the first place.
In light of my own argument about the inequities in the US-Japan alliance, I am extremely sympathetic to Mr. Ozawa’s argument here. The alliance is unequal. LDP governments have been overly solicitious of the US. The alliance will be stronger if Japan learns to say no when it disagrees with the US. Japan should not expect the alliance to function like a Japanese interpersonal relationship, a complex set of obligations accumulated over time that will enmesh the two countries indefinitely. What Japan’s policymakers may come to realize from the North Korea shift is that past support for the US (in Iraq, for example) is no guarantee of reciprocal support for Japan in areas deemed vital to Japanese national interests (the abductions issue, for example). Future Japanese governments — LDP or DPJ — will likely take this lesson to heart and will likely be less forthcoming with support for the US unless (1) Japanese interests are clearly at stake or (2) there is an explicit quid-pro-quo.
Moreover, I should mention that Mr. Ozawa’s position is likely a popular one. Insofar as the Japanese people are interested in foreign policy — and that’s not particularly far — they are dismayed with the government’s failure to stand up for Japan in its relations with other countries, whether China, North Korea, South Korea, or the United States. “Standing up for Japan” is a matter of style, not policy; Japanese citizens seem to desire a government that speaks out in defense of its interests and forcefully challenges insults to Japan’s honor.
So would foreign policy be much different under a Prime Minister Ozawa? Probably not. In his remarks, Mr. Ozawa promised to listen to the people of Okinawa and solve the problem of US bases in Okinawa. He offers no hint of what this would entail (apparently not the 2006 realignment agreement?). He calls for an equal alliance with the US, but offers little hint for how to get there. Presumably in the event of a US-led war, Japanese involvement would depend on a UN security council resolution, as Mr. Ozawa has said on a number of occasions. An Ozawa government would undoubtedly look for closer ties with other regional powers, not least China.
But like the Fukuda government, a DPJ-led government would be overwhelmingly focused on “livelihood” issues — to borrow from the DPJ’s 2007 election campaign, a DPJ government would be a seikatsu daiichi government. Foreign policy issues would take a back seat to fixing the welfare and healthcare systems and reforming the political system through redistricting to enhance the DPJ’s long-term electoral prospects. An Ozawa government would not expend significant amounts of political capital on foreign policy, meaning that for better or worse the core of the US-Japan alliance would remain unchanged. It would probably be less global in its activities, but otherwise the US would remain Japan’s leading ally in the region, and vice versa.
Would it be preferable for Mr. Ozawa to avoid hyperbolic remarks? Yes, of course, but observers must be aware of the reasoning behind his remarks and not rush to conclusions about the policy implications.