What is Ozawa’s angle?

Ozawa Ichiro, a week after his meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has focused attention once again on the DPJ’s approach to the US-Japan alliance, a day after two prominent DPJ members gave their own perspectives on the future of the alliance (mentioned in this post).

Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Ozawa indicated that under a DPJ government Japan would seek to build an equal partnership with the US, which he said would entail reducing the US military presence in Japan to the Seventh Fleet, based at Yokosuka in Kanagawa prefecture. It would also mean Japan’s taking greater responsibility for its own defense, while the US military focused on providing stability in East Asia.

MTC wonders whether Ozawa, in calling for this drastic reduction in the US forward presence, is bargaining with China, with a drastic reduction of US forces in Japan a means of taking Japan out of China’s line of sight. In this sense one should pair these remarks with Ozawa’s remarks earlier this week about China-centered foreign policy.

But there are a number of other perspectives from which to consider these comments. Indeed, knowing Ozawa, invariably he is sending different messages to different actors.

First, given Ozawa’s emphasis on winning the next election, it bears asking what political significance these remarks have. Perhaps this is simply Ozawa’s way of signaling that despite his meeting with Clinton last week, his government, should it ever exist, will not be a US dependency. What I wonder is just how salient this position is. Not having talked to voters in the regions where Ozawa has been traveling, I cannot say for certain, but I cannot but wonder what Ozawa is hearing from the voters with whom he has been interacting for the past several years. Is he consistently hearing abiding skepticism of the alliance as it has been managed under the LDP? Does this message play in the chiho? Will taking this position actually improve the DPJ’s performance in the next general election? If so, that simply makes Ozawa no different than any other democratic politician. And if it’s the case, then the US has a bigger problem than Ozawa’s “independent” line. A long-term US presence in Japan is unsustainable if a broad swath of the public — and not just in the communities hosting the bases — does not see a reason for it. The Obama administration better get an ambassador to Tokyo quick to start repairing the damage, if the president means what he says about the alliance.

Second, it bears asking how this enhances Ozawa’s position within the DPJ and the opposition more broadly. As numerous commentators have noted and concluded that the DPJ is doomed to collapse, Ozawa, now and should he become prime minister, has to balance between vastly divergent views on Japan’s national security. The DPJ has effectively internalized the cold-war era political cleavage structure within its ranks. With these remarks, Ozawa has said nothing that members of the more hawkish sections of the party haven’t already said. Go back and read this speech by Nagashima Akihisa, one of the most prominent DPJ hawks, given in the Diet in March 2007. Nagashima stresses the importance of Japan’s regaining its independence by becoming less dependent on the US for its own defense, while recognizing the importance of the US foreign presence in providing regional public goods (for which the naval forward presence is critical). In his formulation, in wartime the US bears the risks, while in peacetime Japan bears the costs; his desire is to correct this imbalance. I’m not sure whether this formula is quite accurate — the US bears plenty of the alliance’s peacetime costs simply by virtue of its military expenditures, while Japan would bear wartime risks by virtue of hosting US troops — but it does capture the thinking of the DPJ’s hawks.

Naturally Ozawa has to give the occasional nod in their direction, for the sake of party unity. The reaction of Social Democrats, to say nothing of the JCP, shows that Ozawa cannot go too far in this direction, because should the DPJ form a government, it will need the SDPJ’s votes in the upper house even if it can govern independently in the lower house. Emphasizing Japan’s independence from the US while stressing the need for taking a greater responsibility for Japan’s defense may be Ozawa’s attempt to split the difference.

But this need for balance shows that no matter what Ozawa says, radical change in the US-Japan security relationship and Japanese foreign policy will not occur under his watch, not least because foreign policy remains an extremely low priority for the Japanese public. Any radical step in any direction will likely be met with opposition from within the party — turmoil that an LDP in opposition could exploit — and so Ozawa will likely take care to proceed deliberately and gingerly on security policy. A further reason to believe that the DPJ will make few drastic changes in security policy is the defense budget. With a number of expensive promises of far greater importance to Japanese voters, would a DPJ government truly be willing to reverse the decade-long decline in the defense budget and commit the resources to the JSDF that would be necessary were Ozawa’s vision to come to fruition?

In sum, under the DPJ, the status quo on security will remain. With the Obama administration’s willingness to develop non-security dimensions of the relationship, that may do just fine.

That being said, Ozawa’s remarks may simply be a way of negotiating with the US over Okinawa. Why should we being quibbling over this location or that location in Okinawa, Ozawa implies, when we could be discussing about the US military presence holistically? I am certain that as unpleasant as US officials have found negotiations with Tokyo over Okinawa, they would dread a discussion over a drastic reduction of the US military presence in mainland Japan, especially given US investments in realignment at Yokota, Zama, and elsewhere. By threatening to escalate the discussion, Ozawa may be trying to get a major concession from the US, namely the Futenma Replacement Facility that is a major obstacle to concluding the 2006 realignment agreement (I guess now I should say the 2009 realignment agreement), and with it the presence of US Marines in Okinawa. I doubt this tactic will work, largely for the aforementioned reasons about why the US could easily call Ozawa’s bluff, but it bears mentioning as a possible explanation for Ozawa’s remarks.

Finally, it bears mentioning that Ozawa has been consistent over time in his belief in the importance of an independent defense posture and the ability of Japan to defend itself. Ozawa is not a pacifist and he is not philo-American, although that does not make him anti-American. Ozawa is first and foremost concerned with Japan and its national interests. At heart he believes in the importance of Japan’s being able to defend itself and, moreover, not cooperating with the US in areas that he believes are not in Japan’s interests. He has consistently emphasized the importance of formulating policy on the basis of the national interest and has criticized the LDP for neglecting the same. Some might disagree with his assessment of Japan’s national interests, but he is clearly thinking along these lines.

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