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Don’t fear Japan’s changing of the guard

Don’t fear Japan’s changing of the guard

By Dov Zakheim

The latest Japanese polls indicate that the Democratic Party of Japan, led by Yukio Hatoyama, is likely to inflict a crushing defeat on the Liberal Democrats, the country’s long-time governing party. The DPJ, which won control of Japan’s Upper House in 2007, could win as many as 300 seats in the Lower House, roughly equaling former Prime Minister’s results in 2005, and sending a strong message both domestically and internationally that the victory is no fluke. That said, a DPJ victory is not likely to lead to a sea change in the U.S.-Japan alliance. In fact, the greater concern is that the United States doesn’t respond enough and fails to give Japan its due as a great power.

The DPJ’s electoral focus has been primarily on domestic issues, directing particular criticism at the government’s career bureaucracy. With respect to national security policy, the DPJ since its inception just over ten years ago has been somewhat critical of the Japanese military build-up. In the past it has called for termination of Japanese maritime refueling of American warships supporting the war in Afghanistan and for a renegotiation of both the Status of Forces Agreement and the Japanese-American agreement to transfer 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam. The latter is meant to be financed by both countries.

Nevertheless, like parties in other parliamentary democracies seizing the reins of power after more than a decade in opposition, the DPJ is unlikely to carry out its more extreme campaign promises, particularly as its powerful former leader, Ichiro Ozawa, worked closely with the United States while still a member of the Liberal Democrats. Despite its rhetoric, the DPJ, which is a mix of former right- and left-wing parties, will not necessarily cut back on Japan’s recent military expansion. This is especially the case with respect to its missile defense program, given North Korea’s aggressive stance on nuclear matters, and in light of both Kim Jong Il’s mercurial policies and uncertainty about North Korean stability once he finally leaves the scene. Similarly, the DPJ appears to be backing away from its slogans about withdrawing support for US maritime operations related to the war in Afghanistan.

The DPJ has repeatedly called for a more equal relationship with the United States, and some observers fear that its ascension to power will lead to its demand for a renegotiation of the cost sharing provisions of   the US-Japanese Guam agreement that could result in the agreement’s abrogation.  The withdrawal to Guam may well be delayed, if not halted, but less as a result of actions by a DPJ-led government than by legislation initiated by Congressman Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) to reserve 70 percent of all military construction jobs on Guam for American workers. Should the U.S. Congress pass Abercrombie’s initiative, the resulting increase in the cost of developing Guam’s infrastructure may well put the project on ice, given the increasing pressures on the US defense budget. Should there be a long-term delay, however, the DPJ is unlikely to object, much less offer to pour more Japanese funds into the effort.

On the other hand, the DPJ is unlikely to take a passive stance with respect to the relocation of the Marine Air Station from Futenma to Camp Schwab in Nago, both in Okinawa prefecture. The arrangement is highly unpopular in Japan, especially in Okinawa, where the local administration seeks to relocate the Marines to a more remote area off the island’s coast The United States has resisted any change to the overall arrangement regarding the relocation to Guam, of which the move to Camp Schwab is an integral part. Any change would not only make training for the Marine Air Wing exceedingly difficult, but could result in demands for changes to other parts of the agreement, which has never been popular with the US military. For its part, the DPJ is holding firm on its demand for a renegotiation of the Futenma arrangement, and it will face little domestic opposition if it walks away from the deal regarding the Air Station’s relocation.

All in all, the DPJ’s foreign and security policy stance is unlikely to bring about fundamental changes in the relationship with the United States, or for that matter, with other countries in East Asia. The real danger to the US-Japanese relationship lies not in what Tokyo might do, but what Washington might not do. Since it became clear that Japan Inc. would not buy up the United States, past Administrations have tended to pay far more attention to China, often treating Japan as an afterthought, despite pious promises of developing a closer relationship with what is supposedly our closest Asian ally. With the DPJ in power, led by personalities who might be perceived in Washington as less accommodating to American interests in Asia and elsewhere than their Liberal Democrat predecessors, U.S. policymakers may be tempted once again to pay less attention to Japan than objective American interests call for. That would be a serious mistake. It is, moreover, a mistake that is easily avoidable, and it should not take place.