The two areas of Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) foreign policy that most interest advocates of a strong U.S.-Japan relationship are the party’s positions towards China and the UN. Many observers presume that Japan under DPJ President (and likely premier) Yukio Hatoyama will follow former party leader Ichiro Ozawa’s goal to make Japan more independent of the United States. In an op-ed last week in the Christian Science Monitor entitled “Japan Must Shake Off U.S.-Style Globalization,” Hatoyama wrote that Japan “must not forget” its identity as an Asian nation and that East Asia is “Japan’s basic sphere of being.” Within that sphere, Hatoyama reminds his readers, China is becoming the dominant player as he sees the slow but inevitable decline of the United States over the next two to three decades. This sets up a political justification to potentially move closer to China for reasons of self-interest.
There is little question that Tokyo, like Washington, will continue to engage Beijing, even as it tries to figure out a non-confrontational, but credible, hedging strategy. China has always been, and will always be, the most important country in the world for Japan. Japanese fear a strong China as much as they worry about a weak China, and many see their millennial-long history with that country as a more natural, if complicated, relationship than with the United States. The fact that China is Japan’s largest trading partner, with over $266 billion of bilateral trade in 2008, ensures that Tokyo must work constantly to maintain cordial and productive political relations (by comparison, U.S.-Japan trade in 2008 was approximately $205 billion). Ozawa himself led a massive, 450-person delegation to China back in December 2007, where he toasted future Japan-China ties with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Those who have talked to DPJ leaders know that there appears to be no unanimity within the party on China policy. Rather, it is likely that once in power, different factions within the party will debate over the appropriate degree of DPJ outreach to Beijing.
At the same time, the DPJ has also built its foreign policy opposition to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) by advocating greater Japanese participation in multilateral and regional mechanisms. Hatoyama, in his CS Monitor piece, hedged a narrow (and unrealistic) Sino-Japanese focus by calling for Japan to lead in shaping “integration and collective security in the Asia-Pacific region” while adhering to the principles of pacifism enshrined in the Japanese constitution. Yet, with Japan contributing far less to international peacekeeping operations than, say, China, and considering the amount of time it takes for Japan’s Diet to approve the special measures laws that allow dispatch of forces abroad, it is hard to see what kind of leadership role the DPJ intends to bring to Asian collective security.
For Japan to play a larger role in Asia, it must also resolve the numerous outstanding points of contention it has with its neighbors. However, neither Hatoyama’s op-ed nor the DPJ’s election manifesto give any specifics as to what issues, territorial (such as the Senkakus or Takeshima) or historical (such as the textbooks controversy), the DPJ will be willing to bring up for regional discussion. Without such bold moves, it is unlikely that Hatoyama’s desire for Japan to play a larger regional role will gain any traction. These issues, dating from World War II and before, will likely bedevil the DPJ as much as they have the LDP, which has never found the right balance between domestic and foreign demands on such explosive problems.
That leaves the UN as an arena where the DPJ will likely attempt to play a bigger role. Japan is already deeply involved in UN activities and organizations, and the DPJ shares the long-held LDP desire of gaining a permanent (non-veto) seat on the UN Security Council. Yet former party leader Ichiro Ozawa has long had an even more radical view of aligning Japanese policy more closely with UN security resolutions. Ozawa has mused publicly about reducing Japan’s cooperation with U.S. global security activities (such as anti-terrorist operations) and yet fully participating in UN-sanctioned military activities, such as against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In this, Ozawa is undoubtedly out far ahead of his countrymen and likely most of his own party. Will Hatoyama follow Ozawa’s lead? Both the DPJ and the LDP currently have moved to comply with UN inspections resolutions against North Korean ships, which is clearly in Japan’s self-interest. The question is whether a DPJ government will attempt to “normalize” (to use Ozawa’s old phrase) Japan more fully by embracing riskier operations under UN mandates. If so, then how such activities align or not with U.S.-Japan alliance priorities may become a larger question in our bilateral relations. First indications will come with the naming of cabinet ministers and their early, and probably benign, statements of foreign and defense policy.