Shadow Government

The coming tsunami from Japan

By Dan Twining For six decades, two things have been more or less certain in Japanese politics — that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would run the show, and that it would put the U.S.-Japan alliance at the center of its foreign policy. Indeed, Japan has only had one non-LDP prime minister in the last 53 ...


By Dan Twining

For six decades, two things have been more or less certain in Japanese politics — that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would run the show, and that it would put the U.S.-Japan alliance at the center of its foreign policy. Indeed, Japan has only had one non-LDP prime minister in the last 53 years, and he served for only 11 months. All of this is about to change, however, with the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) poised to take power in next month’s elections. Senior Japanese politicos describe what’s coming as a “blowout.” But for Japan — and the United States — it could be more like a tsunami. And it’s not clear that the Obama administration knows what’s about to hit them.

Despite its hold on power, the LDP has been on life-support for some time: Prime Minister Koizumi, who governed from 2001-06, took power with the anti-establishment pledge to “smash” his own party. Unfortunately for the LDP, that never really happened, and Koizumi has been followed by a series of weak prime ministers. All have been good men, and several, including Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso, have possessed a clear vision for Japan in the world. But each has been unable to reverse the LDP’s declining political fortunes.

Now the tide has started to turn. In a historic defeat for the LDP, the DPJ won control of Japan’s upper house in 2007. Since then, the approval ratings of first Prime Minister Fukuda and now Prime Minister Aso have only declined as support for the DPJ has surged. Tokyo municipal election results over the weekend, a bellwether for the national vote to follow, resulted in a decisive DPJ victory. This reinforced the party’s strong lead in the polls and added a feeling of inevitability to what is to come in the August elections.

There are compelling arguments in favor of the political change Japanese voters seek. The country has been in an intractable economic slump for nearly two decades, following the bursting of its “miracle economy” bubble in the late 1980s. Japan has experienced a crisis of identity as a result of four factors. First, its economic malaise has yielded slow to no growth, persistent deflation, and the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the developed world. Second, the growing influence and stature of China has it poised to eclipse Japan as soon as this year as the world’s second-largest economy. Third, Japan’s rapidly aging society, with an already-shrinking population, is creating further pressures on an overstretched national budget. Finally, Japan remains plagued by serious questions about its role and status in a world that’s being transformed by the rise of new powers, whose dynamism has eclipsed Japan’s enduring strengths.

It is questionable, however, whether the DPJ can resolve these structural conundrums. The Liberal Democrats have been so dominant for so long that the DPJ has defined itself to be what the LDP is not. Under the LDP, Japanese foreign and domestic policies have been guided by a strong bureaucracy — so the DPJ pledges to weaken bureaucratic control. Under the LDP, economic policy has been friendly to business — so the DPJ promises a populist economic manifesto with little explanation of how to pay for it. Under the LDP, foreign policy has been grounded in the U.S.-Japan alliance — so the DPJ wants to renegotiate its terms.

The future of the alliance, and Japan’s overall foreign policy orientation should the DPJ assume office, are further muddled by the range of views within a party whose membership spans a wide spectrum — from former left-wing socialists, who are philosophically opposed to the U.S.-Japan alliance, to disgruntled former right-wing LDP members, who support a more hawkish Japanese security policy. Some DPJ members support a trans-Pacific foreign policy in keeping with American priorities, but want Japan to assume a more equal and capable role within the alliance. Other DPJ leaders define a future in which Japan orients itself toward China and pursues Asian economic integration as its external priority, thereby diminishing the alliance with the United States. The DPJ’s political alliance with the Socialist Party in Japan’s upper house 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.

In the event of an LDP loss next month, the Obama administration will be forced to grapple in the near term with the DPJ’s pledge to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that has governed the terms of the U.S. troop presence in Japan since 1960. As part of these discussions, Japan will insist on renegotiating the way the two countries share the cost of the U.S. military presence in Japan. DPJ leaders argue that the current formula, in which Japan funds the garrisoning of U.S. forces because they are there to protect Japan, must be rebalanced. This is not the message American taxpayers will want to hear.

The DPJ also wants to further reduce the footprint of U.S. troops in Okinawa, particularly with regard to military and training operations from Futenma air base. Putting the closure or relocation of Futenma at the top of the U.S.-Japan security agenda — after years of painful negotiations toward an acceptable compromise between American and Japanese counterparts — risks reopening a raw wound in the alliance. At a time of grave security challenges to Japan stemming from ongoing North Korean missile launches and China’s aggressive military buildup next door, a public spat over U.S. basing arrangements in Okinawa risks sending the wrong message to Japan’s adversaries.

The SOFA, Japanese support for American forces, and the Okinawa bases are the most intractable issues in alliance politics, and DPJ leaders make clear that nothing is sacred in their determination to rebalance alliance relations upon taking power. This position stands in stark contrast to the deference with which generations of LDP leaders treated Washington and the alliance framework that has made possible Japan’s postwar prosperity and security.

Is the Obama administration prepared for this sea change in relations with America’s closest Asian ally? The good news is that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell is one of Japan’s most trusted friends in Washington. He played an instrumental role in revitalizing the alliance relationship in the 1990s when he was the Pentagon’s top Asia official. The bad news is that President Obama has pursued an Asia policy that in many ways seems divorced from the strategy pursued by the Clinton administration in which Dr. Campbell previously served — a strategy he has described as an “allies-first” Asia policy, which assumes that the best way to manage the region’s geopolitical challenges, especially the rise of China, is to have the strongest possible relations with core allies, starting with Japan.

The Bush administration pursued a geopolitical project in Asia that, while building a stable and productive relationship with China, worked to shape Asia’s strategic evolution by strengthening the alliance with Japan; expanding Japan’s alliance roles and responsibilities to make that country a global security leader; facilitating India’s economic and military rise through a full-spectrum partnership with Washington; expanding the strategic vision and reach of the U.S.-Korea alliance; tying allies like Japan, South Korea, and Australia more closely to NATO and deploying jointly to out-of-area conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq; connecting friendly Asian maritime partners in new networks of cooperation; and expanding military relations with key Southeast Asian powers Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Secretary Clinton deserves credit for visiting Japan and Indonesia on her inaugural overseas trip. But Asian great powers, Japan and India, have been treated as adjuncts of U.S. policy towards China and Pakistan, respectively — rather than as first-tier partners of the United States, whose importance is intrinsic rather than instrumental. A DPJ government in Tokyo that treats the U.S.-Japan alliance as only instrumentally rather than intrinsically important may give us an unwanted dose of our own medicine.

Katsushika Hokusai

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