Campbell and Ozawa spoke for an hour last Tuesday, with US Ambassador John Roos also in attendance. Neither revealed much about the meeting, although it seems that Campbell requested that Ozawa visit Washington in May with a large number of DPJ Diet members in tow, just like his December visit to Beijing along with more than 140 DPJ members.
Ozawa’s response to what he called a “formal request” is a bit puzzling. At a press conference Monday he said that policy discussions are the job of the government, i.e. if the US government thinks that it can treat with Ozawa in order to find a breakthrough on Futenma it will be disappointed. Instead Ozawa views a Washington trip as necessary to build relations between the DPJ and the Democratic Party — and accordingly he wants a guarantee that a meeting will be scheduled with President Obama. That strikes me as an odd condition considering that Ozawa stated that he will not be going to discuss policy. Why should the president meet with a party official there on party business? LDP officials may have met with the US president when they visited Washington — Abe Shinzo, for example — but if foreign policy is being made by the cabinet, what business does a party official, even the secretary-general, have making a meeting with the president a precondition of his visit?
If Ozawa is serious about not interfering with the Hatoyama government’s foreign policy making, he should make a point of having only brief, perfunctory meetings with administration officials, especially considering that sometime around Golden Week the government will presumably have reached a decision regarding the 2006 realignment plan. Indeed, if Ozawa really wanted to help the alliance he would travel with up-and-coming DPJ members whose foreign policy views are in the party mainstream and give US officials a better sense of the party’s thinking.
While Ozawa caused considerable distress in Washington with his grand tour to Beijing — to which US officials overreacted to seeing as how symbolic visits by a politician outside of the government, no matter how powerful, will not resolve the thorny issues in the Sino-Japanese relationship — not going to Washington after having been explicitly invited would no doubt be another source of agitation.
But perhaps it would be better off if an Ozawa visit to Washington fell through. Even as Ozawa claims that policy discussions are a matter for the government, his actions undoubtedly have consequences for the government’s efforts, as his China trip showed. And once in Washington, would Ozawa be able to control himself and refrain from saying anything that might undermine the government’s work?
This might be a good occasion for Prime Minister Hatoyama to exercise his authority and order the secretary-general to stay home to focus on the impending upper house election campaign.
And the US government should probably get out of the habit of maintaining anything but perfunctory ties with ruling party officials outside of the government.
I find the idea of Diet members’ diplomacy — giin gaiko, the idea that backbenchers can play an independent role in diplomatic problem solving — a pernicious notion characteristic of LDP rule, the foreign policy equivalent of backbencher policy intervention to secure pork-barrel projects. (not least in the case of Suzuki Muneo, now a DPJ ally as head of his New Party DAICHI). In a Westminster-style political system, foreign policy ought to be the sole province of the cabinet. Backbenchers, no matter how senior, ought to respect that or be reprimanded for interfering with government business. Ozawa has been tightening controls on the role that backbenchers can play in policymaking. Why should he be exempt?
Naturally the Hatoyama government should be doing a better job articulating the national interest and deserves at least some blame for creating a vacuum that has to some extent been filled by Ozawa. But the point remains: the prime minister and his cabinet ministers should think hard about whether they want Ozawa going to Washington at a sensitive moment for the government.