The coming DPJ tsunami?

Daniel Twining, writing at Shadow Government, Foreign Policy‘s blog for Republicans in exile from government in Washington, argues that the advent of a DPJ government could represent a “tsunami” for the US and Japan.

Twining offers the standard Washington perspective on the DPJ: Japan has lots of problems, but who knows whether the DPJ can actually fix them.

Indeed, there is very little in this post that hasn’t been said before — and which I argued against in this post.

But I want to respond to Twining’s argument about how the DPJ “will pull its foreign and security policy further to the left — and further away from the broad consensus that has defined the U.S.-Japan alliance for three generations.”

What is this consensus, you ask? Twining notes “the deference with which generations of LDP leaders treated Washington and the alliance framework that has made possible Japan’s postwar prosperity and security.” The use of the word deference is revealing. In short, the alliance has been unequal and should continue to be so: “expanding Japan’s alliance roles and responsibilities to make that country a global security leader” but always remaining subordinate to the US, host to US forces, cooperating in US-led operations abroad, and altering its forces to conform to US wishes.

There are several problems with Twining’s argument. First, before even looking at the merits of the DPJ position, it is worth mentioning that despite the fears of Twining and others in Washington, the most likely outcome of a DPJ government for the foreseeable future is the maintenance of the status quo. The DPJ has said that it wants to renegotiate the 2006 roadmap on the realignment of US forces and the status of US forces in Japan more generally. True, but will these be high priorities for a DPJ government? Any democratic government has only so much political capital to spend, and it is unlikely that a DPJ-led government will devote serious attention to Okinawa in the early years of its government. Okinawa is a low priority for voters outside of Okinawa prefecture, and will take a back seat to administrative reform, pensions, health care, and the economy. Beyond these specific issues, it is a mistake to anticipate radical chance on the alliance for precisely the same reason. Of course there are socialists in the DPJ, and the SDPJ will likely be included in a DPJ-led coalition. But as Twining himself notes, there are those “who support a more hawkish Japanese security policy.”

The result will be equilibrium in favor of the status quo. Neither the left nor the right will be able to achieve radical changes in Japanese security policy. Any changes to Japan’s foreign and security policy will be the result of top-down incremental changes — and the DPJ’s leaders tend to fall somewhere between the two extremes. After flirting with “petite” nationalism earlier in his career, Hatoyama Yukio’s foreign policy views are fairly pedestrian. Ozawa Ichiro is perhaps more controversial, but at the same time few Japanese politicians have been more misunderstood than Ozawa. (See my explanation of his “Seventh Fleet” comments here, here, and here, and discussions of Ozawa’s thinking on foreign policy here, here, and here.) Okada Katsuya is also pedestrian in his security policy views, and recently echoed the Obama administration’s rhetoric when he stressed the importance of US-Japan cooperation in areas other than security (discussed here). Incidentally, the advent of the Obama administration has arguably forced the DPJ to soften its rhetoric on the US: it was a lot easier to criticize Washington under the Bush administration. With the Obama’s administration’s having made a point of not treating Japan with a heavy hand in its first months (what I’ve called benign neglect), the DPJ has changed its tone on the alliance, and will undoubtedly continue to do so should it win next month.

The DPJ’s leaders are hardly radicals. At the very least, the US-Japan alliance will remain an indispensable pillar for the indefinite future, especially because a DPJ government will be no more inclined than an LDP government to spend more on defense. The presence of hawks within the DPJ will probably ensure that defense spending does not fall further than it already has under the LDP, but a DPJ-led Japan will not be gearing up for the development of serious autonomous capabilities. But beyond that, it does seem to be contradictory for Twining to question the DPJ’s ability to address “structural conundrums” but then blithely assert that the DPJ will single-handedly threaten the institution that has been the centerpiece of Japanese security policy for nearly sixty years.

Where does this conclusion leave us? Will the DPJ ask questions of the US that the “deferential” LDP (I think Twining and Ozawa would agree on this point) has not asked of Japan’s ally? Of course. Will it be less inclined to support the US in wars far from Japan’s shores, especially without UN approval? Surely. Will it look to deepen its cooperation with other Asian countries independent of the US? Absolutely. But these positions hardly constitute radical change, and it is hard to see why the Obama administration should anticipate an impending “tsunami” for these reasons.

Incidentally, what Twining fails to realize is that creating some distance between the US and Japan (or “making the alliance equal”) is perhaps the lowest common denominator in the DPJ. Even the DPJ’s conservatives don’t want Japan to be too locked in to the alliance framework.

Which leads to the bigger question: is the DPJ’s position actually bad for the US? It may be bad for the US-Japan establishment, which depends on the idea that the alliance is “intrinsically important.” But what would the US lose if a DPJ government says no from time to time, or if it seeks an international role in regional or international fora that might involve staking out positions at odds with the US? Twining says that the Bush administration sought a Japan that would be a “global security leader,” but in reality it seems that Twining wants a militarily capable Japan subservient to Japan, a vassal not an ally. It seems that it is impossible for the US to have a Japanese ally that is both a “global security leader” and deferential to the United States. If Japan is going to be a more capable global leader, it will from time to time disagree with the US.

As noted previously, the harder edges of the DPJ’s position on the alliance have softened since Barack Obama came into office — and they will likely soften further once the DPJ is faced with governing. The result will be a Japan still allied with the US and still a “pillar” of US policy in East Asia, but reluctant to support security cooperation far from Japanese shores and largely uninterested in values promotion or a crypto-containment policy for China. Japan has already moved in this direction in the years since the fall of Abe Shinzo. Notice, for example, how little the prime minister has discussed his “arc of freedom and prosperity.” Japan has not moved any closer to “remilitarization” under Fukuda or Asō. It has been slow to move on the 2006 road map. It continued to support the token refueling mission in the Indian Ocean, but offered nothing more in either Iraq or Afghanistan. It did send ships to Somalia, but only after China did, and even then its commitment was presented as being in Japan’s national interest.

Twining, of course, believes otherwise: he tells us that Koizumi’s successors “have been good men, and several, including Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso, have possessed a clear vision for Japan in the world.” Why he says several when the only prime minister not included on that list is Fukuda is beyond me. (And this is particularly insulting, because I think of the three, Fukuda had the most realistic assessment of the problems facing Japan and had the most clearly articulated vision for overcoming said challenges. See here and here.)

The era of Japan’s becoming a deputy to the US sheriff in East Asia has passed, and the sooner that both Republicans and Democrats come to recognize this, the better it will be for the alliance.

One thought on “The coming DPJ tsunami?

  1. Very good post! Its true that a lot of discussion inside the USA carries the assumption that a DPJ Foreign Policy would not only be less conducive to American interests, but that it would also be carried out by the DPJ because the DPJ is a united front. Has foreign policy been a major part of the debate among the electorate? Or is domestic politics overshadowing any public discussion of Afghanistan or Article 9?


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