Fukuda Should Not Discourage Friends of Japan

December 29th, 2007 The Yomiuri Shimbun 

Japan’s domestic politics has been left in disarray because of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s humiliating defeat in July’s House of Councillors election followed by the abrupt resignation in September of Shinzo Abe as prime minister.

What effect are these developments having on the vitally significant relationship between Japan and the United States?

One important trend is the decline of U.S. interest in Japan.

When Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda visited Washington in November, no major U.S. newspaper apart from The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial on his trip. Even then, the focus of the editorial was limited to the need to consider Japanese national sentiments over the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea. As an apparent reflection of waning U.S. interest in Japan, the editorial stopped short of mentioning what Japan’s diplomatic strategy toward East Asia should be from a long-range viewpoint.

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Fukuda a ‘consensus builder’

Indicative of the perceptions U.S. intellectuals have about Japan today, especially those well-versed in Japan, is a paper by Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation based in Washington.

Klingner’s paper, which was made public a week before Fukuda’s visit to Washington, suggested a sense of disappointment at the demise of the Abe administration and its replacement by the Fukuda Cabinet. But it also pointed to the need for Washington not to turn a cold shoulder toward the Fukuda administration, thereby partly defending the new Cabinet and, by extension, Japan as a whole.

“Compared to his predecessor, Fukuda will be less inclined than Abe to press for removing legal restrictions to allow Japan to assume a larger regional security role, a major change in Japanese policy advocated by Washington, but this will not unduly impact the U.S.-Japan relationship,” Klingner noted.

He went on to say: “Though some expect drastic policy changes from the reputedly dovish Fukuda, he will likely maintain most of his conservative predecessor’s policies, with some adjustments. The most significant will be the reprioritization of Abe’s signature issue: pursuing the constitutional and legal revisions necessary for Japan’s self-defense forces to assume new missions and for Japan to play a larger security role regionally and internationally. Fukuda…does not share Abe’s zeal for using Japan’s armed forces as a policy instrument or for forming a ‘broader Asia’ partnership of democracies–Japan, India, the United States and Australia–to contain China.

“While Fukuda’s foreign policy will not be as U.S.-focused as his predecessor’s, it would be a mistake to see this as a repudiation of the U.S.-Japan bilateral relationship. Fukuda has vowed to renew the Antiterrorism Special Measures Law which allows Japanese tankers to refuel Coalition naval forces in the Indian Ocean that support operations in Afghanistan.

“Because the opposition Democratic Party of Japan intends to use this legislation to induce a political confrontation with the LDP, Washington runs the risk of needlessly straining the broader relationship with Tokyo. Should that happen, the United States could wind up undermining its long-term objective of having Japan assume a larger security role in northeast Asia as a bulwark against the military threats of North Korea and China.”

The paper by Klingner is titled “Japan’s Consensus Builder” in reference to Fukuda, and says to the effect that his selection as prime minister should be considered a good choice based on a well-arranged compromise among forces in Japan’s ruling camp. It falls short, however, of discussing in detail the specifics of what consensus should be reached in Japan.

It seems Klingner gave his paper this title to cast the Fukuda administration in as favorable a light as possible.

As might be expected from Britain, a country that is never slow to pick up on changes to the international situation, the Financial Times recently carried commentaries about Fukuda over a couple of days.

It said Fukuda “is perceived as less keen than Mr. Abe on expanding Japan’s presence in the world’s trouble spots, as Washington has wanted.”

The Financial Times, however, quickly added that although there are some who are critical of Fukuda’s appointment to the premiership as a reversion to the LDP’s old-fashioned, backroom-deal-type politics, the important point they have missed in their condemnation “was that, once again, the LDP had hit on just the person to save it.”

The viewpoint of the Financial Times regarding the Fukuda administration can be interpreted as similar to Klingner’s.

This view seems to represent the limit of what those well-informed about Japan in the United States can say about Japanese-U.S. relations as the situation stands. They are aware that the United States cannot place the same expectations on Japan as it did before. Taking the current East Asian situation into account, they also believe it unadvisable for Washington to act in a way that might disregard or alienate Tokyo.

The long-range policy objective of the United States toward Japan, in their view, is to have Japan play a greater role as a buffer against China and North Korea. They therefore think any move that might be detrimental to achieving this objective should strictly be ruled out and instead call on the Fukuda administration to be viewed favorably.

Looking at the opinion of those sympathetic to Japan, however, may not be enough to grasp the general direction opinions are heading in the United States regarding Japanese-U.S. relations.

Noteworthy in this connection are the policies toward East Asia that two presidential candidates–Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, and John McCain, a Republican–have respectively advocated in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

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Peace, liberty through alliance

Irrespective of who will win the 2008 U.S. presidential election, even if someone other than the two mentioned above wins, it is safe to assume that the opinion of the United States will lie somewhere between the points of view presented by Clinton and McCain.

In her essay, Clinton devoted two paragraphs exclusively to references to China, noting, “Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century.”

Regarding Japan, Clinton referred only to the need for establishing joint U.S.-Japanese-Chinese programs for combating environmental problems.

McCain, for his part, lauds the cooperation in Afghanistan among U.S. allies, including Japan. He calls for the United States to “go further by linking democratic nations in one organization: a worldwide League of Democracies.”

What he advocates is not a Woodrow Wilson-like plan for a universal-membership League of Nations, but something more like the framework Theodore Roosevelt envisioned: like-minded nations working together for peace and liberty.

What brings the ideas of the two into stark contrast is a key concept put forward in a book by Henry Kissinger, “Diplomacy,” that is, to compare the idea of securing world peace on the basis of balance of power through alliances to a universal, multilateral system of consultations.

Clinton, for that matter, is in favor of the idea of building a Northeast Asia security system based on the framework of the six-party talks for ending North Korea’s nuclear programs.

But Japan must guard against this mode of thinking since it raises the danger that an East Asia security arrangement might cause a shift away from the Japanese-U.S. Security Treaty toward a multilateral consultation framework.

Both Clinton and McCain support calls for boosting cooperation among Japan, the United States, Australia and India on a broad range of issues. McCain, in particular, stresses the importance of such quadrilateral cooperation as he says the four countries hold basically the same values. He also has made reference to the kind of “arc of freedom and prosperity” stretching across Asia that Taro Aso proposed while in office as foreign minister in the Abe Cabinet.

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Keep 2 key goals intact 

What, then, should Japan do?

Whenever I have asserted the need to strengthen Japan-U.S. security arrangements over the years, a familiar critique is expressed. It goes something like this: It is all right to trust the United States, but how can you be sure the United States reciprocates? Won’t the United States eventually choose to stand by China rather than Japan?

This kind of concern is understandable, especially when looking back at events such as the “Nixon shock” of 1971–the surprise announcement that then U.S. President Richard Nixon was seeking rapprochement between Beijing and Washington–or going even further back in time, the events of World War II.

I have made it a rule to respond to this opinion in the following way: I understand this concern very well, but to eliminate it, a choice between two courses of action has to be made. One is to engineer an estrangement between China and the United States and the other is to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance. Intentionally scheming to create tension between other parties is not something a respectable person or country would ever do, so the sole remaining solution is to cement the alliance between Japan and the United States.

In terms of a suitable strategy for bolstering the Japan-U.S. alliance, few would object to the idea that, first of all, those U.S. intellectuals sympathetic to Japan should not have their noses put out of joint and should instead be supported and encouraged. Their expectations are clear from what I have discussed above.

The prime minister should take this point into consideration when dealing with two pending matters inherited from the Abe administration. These matters relate to efforts toward expanding Japan’s role in the international community: enabling Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense; and boosting cooperation between Japan, the United States, Australia and India.

Given that Fukuda is “just the person” for consensus building as suggested by Klingner and the Financial Times, he is unlikely to be disposed to address these pending tasks aggressively.

At the very least, though, Fukuda should refrain from making remarks that could be interpreted as negative or backpedaling with respect to these two key matters.

Such remarks, if made, would certainly be off-putting for the friends of Japan–those U.S. intellectuals who do show an interest in Japanese matters–and would be the quickest way of encouraging Japan to be viewed with less significance.