The expected victory of the opposition party in Japan’s Aug. 30 general election is creating a new element of uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific region, already unsettled by North Korea’s war drums and China’s assertiveness. The ruling conservative Liberal Democratic party has held power for 52 of the past 53 years. It is the political linchpin of the US-Japanese alliance. Now, largely because of lamentable domestic policy failures, opinion polls suggest it is all but dead in the water.
The center-left Democratic party of Japan (DPJ), ahead by up to 20 points in some surveys, is committed, on paper at least, to a radical reappraisal of Japan’s postwar defense partnership with Washington. Its manifesto pledges to “re-examine the role of the US military in the security of the Asia-Pacific region and the significance of US bases in Japan.”
Questions have been raised about the continuing presence of roughly 50,000 US troops on Japanese soil and, more broadly, about Japan’s military support for US operations in Iraq and now in Afghanistan.
At the same time, DPJ leaders are advocating improved ties with former adversaries, notably China and South Korea, strained during the 2001 to 2006 term of former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. Party chief Yukio Hatoyama has vowed not to follow Koizumi in paying respects to Japan’s war dead at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, seen in Beijing as a symbol of unrepentant Japanese militarism.
Speaking at a conference in Tokyo on Monday, Katsuya Okada, the DPJ’s second-in-command, said the party wanted an equal relationship with the administration of US President Barack Obama.
“There are various issues of concern between Japan and the US. It is necessary ... to work on changing systems based on trust,” he said.
Japan lacked independence, he said.
“If Japan just follows what the US says, then I think as a sovereign nation that is very pathetic,” he said.
Okada expressed impatience with the pace of international nuclear disarmament, a sensitive issue in Japan. Although his party welcomed US President Barack Obama’s call for a nuclear-free world, he suggested Japan should pursue its own disarmament and non-proliferation policies.
These and other apparently game-changing DPJ positions have led to talk of a generational shift in Japanese politics, bringing to office leaders who have no personal memories, guilty or otherwise, of the war, and no particular reason to thank the US for the postwar alliance.
But for all the chat about mould-breaking, a sharp reality check may await the DPJ. Take the nuclear issue: As Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso noted in Hiroshima last week, Japan continues to benefit from the US “nuclear umbrella” when it comes to threats from North Korea, just as during the Cold War. While most Japanese supported the abolition of nuclear weapons, he said, such a development was unlikely in the foreseeable future, whatever the DPJ might do or say.
Despite its talk of Asian outreach, the DPJ has already confirmed it will adhere to Aso’s tough line on North Korea’s nukes and missiles and the long-running issue of Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang. It will also continue with a US$3.1 billion missile defense program jointly developed with the US. In a similarly realistic vein, the DPJ admitted this week that, growing economic interdependence notwithstanding, China’s rising military spending was a concern. But there was not much it could do.
“There is no option for us to be in a military conflict. We should not be in an arms race but rather aiming to reduce arms in the future,” Okada said.
Japan is struggling with its worst postwar recession, while China was its top two-way trading partner and its biggest export market last year — after the US.
The DPJ reacted cautiously last week to a government defense review that recommended easing constitutional constraints to allow Japan’s military to expand cooperation with the US. In truth, its circumspection reflects splits within the party about how far to go, if at all, in loosening the US leash.
Nor will the US voluntarily relax its close embrace just because some new faces show up at Tokyo head office next month. Harvard professor Joseph Nye said Washington attaches high priority to its Japanese alliance. Shared concerns ranging from China to pandemics, terrorism and failed states would bind the US and Japan more closely than ever in the 21st century, he predicted.
It’s a lesson other long-time US allies have learned. Whatever DPJ leaders may think, there’s no escaping the US when it doesn’t want to be escaped.
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