America’s Loss—Asia’s Gain

A political movement could boost Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors—and evaporate its alliance with America.

When Shinzo Abe resigned as Japan’s prime minister September 12, Japanese politics plunged from confusion into chaos. Abe’s resignation was a sucker punch to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (ldp), whose reputation and influence had already ruptured badly this year amid a series of scandals and cabinet reshuffles.

The winds of change are gusting through Japanese politics.

The historically dominant and staunchly pro-American ldp suffered its most debilitating blow in July when, for only the second time in 50 years, it lost majority control over the upper house of parliament, this time to the Democratic Party of Japan (dpj). This defeat handicapped the party’s control over the government, diminishing its ability to dominate political issues and set the national agenda.

On September 23, ldp members voted the moderate Yasuo Fukuda to replace Abe. Though this move helped stabilize the national leadership, ultimately it will do little to stem a broader movement gaining momentum within Japanese politics—one of enormous import.

This movement, which flows swift among Japan’s increasingly popular opposition parties, seeks the restructuring of foreign policy in two important ways: First, it seeks to temper Tokyo’s strong and submissive relationship with Washington. Second, it seeks to improve Japan’s relations with its traditional Asian competitors, most notably China.

It has become obvious that a primary by-product of the ldp government’s weakening is the emergence into mainstream politics of this double-pronged movement. Though it is unfolding within a government far across the Pacific, it carries grave consequences for the U.S.

Implications of a Weakened LDP

The political state of the ldp has grown so gaunt, and the influence of the rival dpj so strong, that it has become exceptionally difficult for Fukuda and his party to maintain Japan’s full-fledged support of the United States. Despite the fact that a born-and-bred ldp ideologue still runs the government, Japanese support of America is now weaker than ever.

Fukuda may have done his part to consolidate America’s relationship with Japan, but the ldp simply lacks the political influence of yesteryear that would enable it to keep Japan a dedicated instrument of American foreign policy.

Washington is monitoring the ldp’s weakened position closely—particularly since it could hinder operations in Afghanistan, where Japan plays an important supporting role to the U.S. Navy. One of the main issues triggering Abe’s resignation was his failure to secure dpj support for an anti-terrorism bill that would enable Japanese Maritime Defense Force vessels to continue providing logistical assistance in Afghanistan. As of this writing, it remains unclear whether a deal can yet be struck. The ldp has already made significant concessions in an attempt to get a compromise bill approved. In mid-October, the cabinet agreed on a new bill that, if approved by parliament, would reduce Tokyo’s support for U.S.-led combat missions. It would limit Japan’s involvement to refueling vessels on patrol and not those involved in military operations. Fukuda’s government made the changes in the mission “in hopes of mollifying opposition critics who said it involved Japan too deeply in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan” (Associated Press, October 16). Still, the dpj insists Japan’s involvement be scrapped entirely.

As tension brews, U.S. officials have become increasingly concerned that the sentiment runs deeper than merely Japan’s lack of support of this one operation—and that dpj leaders could further fracture the Japanese-American security and military relationship. They have subtly warned Fukuda that unless the ldp regains control of the government, the broader relationship between Washington and Tokyo will suffer.

Drawing Closer to Asian Neighbors

Fukuda might be trying to toe the ldp party line in his approach to America, but he is rewriting his party’s historical approach toward Japan’s regional competitors, particularly China and North Korea. Fukuda has a reputation as a foreign-policy dove. He has “long emphasized the importance of building strong ties with China and the rest of Asia and represents a break from the nationalist Abe and his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi” (International Herald Tribune, September 23). This is bound to force change in Japanese-U.S. relations.

During a televised debate in September, Fukuda spent considerable time highlighting his goal to redirect foreign policy in a manner that will improve Japan’s relationship with its neighbors. “China is now aiming at a free-market economy. They are making an effort,” he said. “We need to cooperate with them.” He has also promised that as prime minister he will not follow in the steps of Koizumi and Abe and visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which is generally viewed as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism and heavily criticized by neighboring peoples who were past victims of Japanese aggression.

Fukuda also seeks to soften Japan’s long-time hardline approach toward North Korea. During his campaign, he told his people that Tokyo needed to “make conversation to some extent” and “must not close the road to talks.” Interestingly, he used the rationale that doing so would be following the U.S.’s example.

These remarks about improving relations with Asian states, particularly China, highlight an important trend. Japanese politicians on both sides of the aisle are coming to realize that the entire balance of power in the Far East is radically different than it was 20, 10 or even 5 years ago. Not long ago, China was little more than the whipping boy for human rights activists, a deprived nation largely marginalized from global politics. Today, however, with China a legitimate regional and global power, Japan is having to be more considerate of Chinese interests. It sees China’s influence in the region is waxing strong, while America’s is waning. In other words, a reorientation toward Asia simply makes sense.

In practical terms, this means Japan can no longer exist as an unquestionably loyal extension of U.S. foreign policy. The wealthier that states such as China, South Korea and even India become and the greater geopolitical influence they acquire, the more Japanese politicians have to moderate their support of the U.S.

As much as Prime Minister Fukuda may want to believe otherwise, furthering Japan’s relations with Asian states cannot truly occur without tempering its security and military relationship with Washington. Ever since China emerged as a competitor with American power, the Sino-American relationship has swung between cautious skepticism and downright hostility. From Beijing’s perspective, improving the Sino-Japanese relationship would require Tokyo moderating its relationship with Washington as much as it would Japan and China working together directly to rebuild bridges.

For now, Japan remains under the watch of a man set on ensuring Tokyo remains a staunch supporter of America. But this does not mean that the movement to temper this relationship and expand relationships within the region will not gain steam. First, the ldp lacks the political strength to ensure Japan remains a firm U.S. ally. Second, the ldp itself now realizes the need for Japan to reorient itself within Asia’s new balance of power equation.

And third, the ldp could actually lose control of Japan’s government to the far less pro-American dpj.

Ozawa: A Man to Watch

This year, Ichiro Ozawa, the gregarious leader of the dpj, emerged as the power forward of Japanese politics. When he and his party snatched dominance of the upper house of parliament in July, he made history by breaking the ldp’s half-century dominance over the government.

This success didn’t satisfy Ozawa’s ambition; it fueled it.

With the ldp floundering, Ozawa is currently making a play for full power. In October, he confirmed his desire to run the country, telling reporters, “[W]e want to have an early election as soon as possible and take control of the government” (Agence France Presse, October 16).

ldp shenanigans are partly responsible for empowering the increasingly popular opposition party, but one should not underestimate the power of Ozawa’s personality. He is called the gorilla of Japanese politics, and is a political powerhouse to be reckoned with. “Nicknamed ‘The Steamroller,’ Ozawa is branded by some as a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ and a man guilty of ‘patricide,’ while others see him as a talented reformer and an anomaly in Japanese politics” (Spiegel Online, September 17).

The Steamroller looks to flatten ldp leader Yasuo Fukuda. Ozawa is painting the Liberal Democrats as “America’s lackeys,” a disunited, decrepit relic of a party incapable of running the government. “Since the dpj’s landslide victory in the upper house, Ozawa is now closer to his lifetime political goal than he has been in a long time: Ozawa wants to snatch power from the Liberal Democrats, who have ruled Japan almost without interruption since 1955. He intends to wear down Abe’s successor so that he is forced to dissolve the lower house of parliament, where the ruling party holds a two-thirds majority, and call for new elections” (ibid.).

Ozawa is an ardent critic of Japan’s support of U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He regularly takes potshots at Japan’s unquestioning loyalty and has stated publicly that Japan’s military should only participate in missions mandated by the United Nations.

Earlier this year, he broke no sweat telling Thomas Schieffer, the U.S. ambassador to Tokyo, that he opposed Japan’s participation in the war in Iraq because President Bush instigated the war without a sufficient UN mandate. When Schieffer responded by warning Ozawa of the potential damage to bilateral relations, “Ozawa suddenly became a popular hero among his fellow Japanese” (ibid.). This willingness to confront Washington has boosted Ozawa’s popularity in a nation united by its deepening mistrust of the American superpower.

Don’t be misled; Ozawa is no pacifist, upset by Japan’s growing military ambitions. To the contrary, he fervently supports altering Japan’s pacifist Constitution and making the nation a more influential military power. He simply believes Japan is strategically and militarily too closely aligned with America. Ozawa does want a stronger, more proactive Japanese military—he just wants it to operate with greater independence.

At the same time, Ozawa is not calling for the complete dissolution of the Japanese-American relationship. He simply wants the terms and requirements of the relationship rewritten to give Japan a stronger voice in Washington and greater independence—a relationship built more on Japan’s terms and less on America’s.

This year Ozawa and his party built their political success on this platform. “Koizumi and Bush, Abe and Bush—from our perspective, those relationships were too close,” said Shinkun Haku, a Democratic Party member. Solid relations with America are important, he said, “but is it right to look only to the United States and turn our backs on China and South Korea?”

Ichiro Ozawa is a man to watch. If Prime Minister Fukuda cannot consolidate ldp ranks, restore the party’s reputation and curb Ozawa’s growing popularity, elections appear inevitable.

If Ozawa becomes prime minister, America will be first to feel the shift in Japan’s foreign policy. Ozawa would surely reduce further, perhaps eliminate, Japan’s support in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would almost certainly maintain friendly rhetoric with America, and likely work, at least in the short term, to keep the relationship intact. In time, however, Japan would grow more deeply motivated by national self-interest and less concerned about pleasing its American friends. Ozawa’s subtle antipathy toward America would be manifested in a less U.S.-centric, more regional-friendly foreign policy.

Broader Implications

It is evident that soon—whether the Japanese government is led by Fukuda and the weakened ldp or Ozawa and the dpj—we can expect the staunch support America has received from the Japanese government since World War ii to become a pleasant fact of history.

When this occurs, America’s ability to project power within the Pacific will diminish. The loss of Japanese support will have great impact on U.S. foreign policy in Asia—particularly toward China and North Korea, which have traditionally respected, even feared, Japan’s powerful military as a proxy of U.S. foreign policy.

Eventually, when Japan successfully integrates itself into the Asian landscape, and particularly in a closer relationship with China, America will find itself on the opposite end of the spectrum in its relationship with Japan.

It may sound inconceivable, but when China and Japan become allies (which is more plausible than many like to accept), it will be the Chinese that end up enjoying the military, strategic and geopolitical benefits of a close relationship with Japan rather than the U.S.

Together, these nations could become a mighty force of opposition against America!

Forty years ago, the Plain Truth, with Herbert W. Armstrong as its editor in chief, warned about this scenario: “Despite popular belief, Japan is not permanently committed to a pro-Western position. America has foolishly followed the policy of assuming that … Germany and Japan can be converted to the virtues of democracy in less than a generation. … Both Japanese and Germans are willing, for the present, to put up with their so-called democratic form of government—until some serious internal crisis is precipitated. … Japan tolerates her present form of government as long as it is economically expedient. If the time were ever to come—and it will comethat the Japanese could not feed off of American aid, we would witness a remarkable change in attitude toward the United States. Friendship would quickly evaporate” (April 1968).

Consider the history of Japanese-American relations. This relationship is not only comparatively young, it has very little depth. America and Japan share few religious, cultural or even historical ties.

In fact, just over 60 years ago, Japanese pilots were bombing U.S. naval frigates as the Imperial Japanese Navy attempted to obliterate the U.S. Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor. Only six decades ago, Japan was an Axis power bent on destroying the United States!

Japanese imperialism was driven into submission only after atomic bombs were detonated on two Japanese cities. Then, with the war ended, the U.S. set about rebuilding Japan. After destroying Japanese willpower and bankrupting the nation financially, politically and socially, it was easy for the United States to hand Japan a constitution and impose Western-style democracy.

As healthy as U.S.-Japanese relations appear today, this history—not to mention the vast religious, cultural and ideological divides between these two states—is working against the relationship.

Until recently, Japanese leaders made the simple choice to toe the American line and operate within Asia as an extension of U.S. foreign policy. But the emergence of China, South Korea, and even India in recent years as powers in their own right has complicated matters. Today the decision to provide unfailing support to America—an ailing superpower distracted by numerous conflicts and no longer the security blanket for Japan that it once was—is not nearly so easy.

It’s important we watch Japanese politics, whatever course they might run. Sooner or later—more probably sooner—this movement inside Japan that demands the tempering of relations with America and the advancement of relations with Asian states will evolve into a full-blown reality.

When this occurs, the United States of America will lose one of its most trusted allies!