SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 15 of 89 « Previous | Next »

The U.S.-Japan Alliance and Electoral Politics

At the start of 2008, most Americans are transfixed by the least predictable primary season for a U.S. president in memory. Security issues are playing a prominent role in electoral politics in the United States at the moment – from the specifics of Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting terrorism, Iran, and Pakistan, among others, to the overarching question of how to restore global confidence in American leadership. Few are pondering Japan.

The importance of Election 2008 to the country’s security posture is not limited to the United States, however. Japan too is likely to hold an election in 2008, and it will almost certainly be shaped by and in turn affect security issues. In characteristically grandiose language, Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), recently quipped: “It took fifteen years between the Black Ships [from the United States] arriving at Uraga Bay [in 1853] and the completion of the Meiji Restoration. I want to make the new year a time when my own and the nation's fate are decided in a political battle.”[1]

Elections in both countries could have a major impact on the future evolution of the cornerstone of security in East Asia – the U.S.-Japan alliance – and by extension on the future of East Asian security.

Electoral politics have not featured prominently in recent analysis of the U.S.-Japan alliance, though there is past precedent for electoral politics to play a large role in relations between the two countries – the extension of the U.S.-Japan security treaty in 1960, the Vietnam War period, and the special relationship between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone are three examples. Traditionally, however, the alliance has tended to be managed “behind-the-scenes” by powerful bureaucrats in both states, and aggressively shielded from electoral politics. Changes in the political climate of both countries may require a new approach. After a major political upset in the July 2007 election in Japan, opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa used an alliance issue as his opportunity to thwart the ruling party. This, combined with the overall stress of his party’s loss in the election, led Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to resign in September after just one year in office. Although Abe was replaced by another close ally of the United States, Yasuo Fukuda, the weakened position of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and expressed willingness of the DPJ to use alliance issues as political tools suggest a potentially rocky future as Election 2008 in Japan ramps up.

Still, although tensions are likely to rise during the election season in both countries, the overall health of the alliance is not in question. It is important to keep this central point in mind as managers of the relationship face further inevitable challenges posed by electoral politics in the coming year. The marked alliance deepening of recent years is not the result of limited and temporary situational events but rather of long-term challenges to the security of Japan and the United States that provide an enduring rationale for continued cooperation. These shared interests in regional and global security were stressed in the June 2006 joint statement from President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, “The Japan–U.S. Alliance of the New Century.”

Still, even cooperation under a logical rationale will require close coordination among political leaders, operational-level bureaucrats, and military personnel on both sides – cooperation that is hindered by frequent changes in key leaders and the numerous distractions both countries are facing as they gear up for important national elections.

A Changing Political Climate in Both States

In stark contrast to previous years, security issues played a major role in Japan’s electoral politics in 2007, a shift with great relevance to the nature of the U.S.-Japan alliance. It began in January with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe realizing after only four months in office the long-held goal of political conservatives (as well as many in the U.S. defense community) of upgrading Japan’s Defense Agency to full ministry status. Momentum continued, in May, with the attainment of another long-held goal that brings one step closer the holy grail of many conservatives – constitutional revision – with the passage of legislation in the Diet which specifies the procedures for a first-ever national referendum to be held in the event the Diet approves by a two-thirds majority a point of constitutional revision. The May bill stipulated that the legislation would take effect only in 2010, however. Still, once again many in the U.S. defense community were satisfied with the progress made by the key American ally in Asia, one now poised to play an even greater military support role to U.S. security concerns.

The caveat meant effectively, however, that national elections would be held in both houses of the Diet before a constitutional referendum could take place. Here the conservatives’ momentum stopped, replaced by a dramatic political shift: Prime Minister Abe’s party, the LDP, suffered its worst returns in the history of the party in the July election for the House of Councilors, the less powerful upper house in Japan’s parliament. For the first time since the founding of the party in 1955, a party other than the LDP – the DPJ – won more seats in a national election. Not only was this a crushing blow electorally, but it led to a novel legislative situation in Japan – effectively, divided government. With House of Councilors elections taking place only every three years (and even then, with only half of the seats contested), the DPJ victory insures its influence on policymaking for the medium term, and more broadly injects electoral politics in the day-to-day management of the alliance indefinitely.

Although the LDP still technically controls the primary levers of political power in Japan due to its substantial majority in the more-powerful House of Representatives, the DPJ’s success in November 2007 at blocking renewal of the anti-terrorism special measures law that legislated Japanese maritime operations in the Indian Ocean is likely only the first of many points on the LDP’s legislative agenda that the DPJ will be able to hinder using its majority in the House of Councilors, and has created great pressure on Prime Minister Fukuda to call an election in Japan’s lower house in 2008 in an attempt to restore a mandate for the LDP agenda (though an election there is not required until September 2009). An early election is not without risk, however. If the LDP loses its two-thirds majority in the lower house, it will no longer be able to over-ride House of Councilors inaction as the LDP did on January 11, 2008 when it re-authorized Japanese maritime operations in the Indian Ocean over DPJ objections.

Divided government, of course, reached the United States first – as a result of the Republican loss of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in the November 2006 election. Democrats in the United States have employed similar strategies to those of Democrats in Japan, using whatever procedural means available to thwart the superior institutional power of the other party: delaying tactics, subpoenas, and public appeals among them. Democrats in both countries express loudly and often that they can only fulfill their broader agenda if voters elect Democrats to executive power.

This would seem more likely in the United States than in Japan, however. In Japan’s lower house, the DPJ must confront an LDP that enjoys its largest majority in that house since the party was created in 1955. To gain a majority – and be entitled to choose the prime minister, in Japan’s parliamentary system – the DPJ must prevail in head-to-head competition with the LDP in far more single-member districts than it has proved able to in the past. And while the LDP government suffers from low support rates, so does the DPJ – similar to the simultaneously low support rates of President Bush and the U.S. Congress. The most likely outcome of Election 2008 Japan is for the DPJ to gain seats in the lower house, but not a majority – thus continuing for the foreseeable future the legislative gridlock currently faced by the ruling LDP.

In the U.S. presidential system executive power is decided through its own election and in this area too America’s political climate has changed greatly in ways that may well affect the broad contours of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Most candidates from both American parties have expressed dismay at the combative nature of the Bush administration and have pledged to work more closely with allies and to use diplomacy more effectively even with adversaries. Such sentiments bode well for U.S.-Japan cooperation in 2009 on the surface, but may in fact place Japan in awkward positions on multiple fronts – from being asked to do more to compromising on its own policy preferences, such as regarding North Korea. In the meantime, however, there are likely to be hiccups as minority parties and electoral candidates seek to score political points on foreign policy issues.

Just as Republican presidential contenders in the United States have signaled a shift away from President Bush’s foreign policy approaches, the rise to power of Prime Minister Fukuda also has signaled a political shift in Japan, though from within the same ruling LDP. Although also clearly a strong supporter of the U.S.-Japan alliance, as noted in his November visit to the United States (the first foreign country he visited), Fukuda’s public speeches regarding the alliance and in particular Japan’s military role lack the stridency of Prime Minister Abe. Fukuda also shows a greater closeness to Asia, for better and for worse. In his 2008 new year’s speech (delivered in English via YouTube, a first for a Japanese Prime Minister), Fukuda does assert the “essential” nature of the alliance, not only to the security of Japan but also to the region, but then continues by expanding the definition of security to include health and sanitation, development, and environmental concerns – rhetoric that harkens back to the “comprehensive security” approaches pursued by Japan in previous decades.[2] The concluding words of Fukuda’s speech – “The larger the problem the more we wish for cooperation among all in the world. Now is the time for the global community to unify to fight on the same side to live together.” – could not sound more different from the current chief executive in the United States. Fukuda’s broader and more cooperative approach to security suggests that his administration may be less keen to focus on expanding the military aspects of U.S.-Japan alliance.

Playing with China?

Casual observers might have been jarred to see Prime Minister Fukuda, during his late December visit to China, tossing a baseball with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. These visuals naturally invoke earlier images of President Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s similar play during Koizumi’s visit to the United States in 2006. But does this mean Japan is now playing with China, not the United States? After all, no one reported President Bush and Prime Minister Fukuda playing ball during Fukuda’s November visit to the United States.

During the four-day trip, Fukuda's first to China since he became prime minister, the two countries signed agreements to cooperate to fight climate change and to increase youth and professional exchanges, and concluded arrangements for China’s president Hu Jintao to travel to Japan in April 2008 (which will be the first such trip by a Chinese head of state in a decade). Rather than seeing this as a zero-sum competition, the United States should be pleased to see its game (baseball) and its principal ally (Japan) embraced in China. Difficult Japan-China ties serve no one’s interests.

The Future Path of the U.S.-Japan Alliance

Despite some likely slowdown in forward-moving developments due to electoral politics in both Washington and Tokyo this year, all indications are that in the next few years Japan’s alliance relationship with the United States will hasten further development of capacity and capability in Japan’s defense establishment. Recent negotiations between the two states will likely lead to progress in four areas in particular.

First, the U.S. goal of greater interoperability and joint capabilities of Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) and U.S. forces will result in expanded capacity on the part of Japan. Areas of particular importance to the regional security environment would include missile defense, greater sharing of intelligence, increased cooperation in antiterrorism and counter-proliferation activities, and further development of naval cooperation in particular.

Second, despite the temporary set-back of the Japanese withdrawal from the Indian Ocean (and the earlier withdrawal of ground forces from Iraq in 2006) Japan will continue to develop more experience working in third countries together with its American ally, building on recent experiences in the Indian Ocean and in areas around Iraq. As one consequence, the members of the SDF and recently-established Ministry of Defense likely will play enhanced leadership roles within the alliance, including in regional security forums.

Third, the SDF is likely to play a greater role in the managing of military bases within Japan, including the assumption of full responsibility for some bases currently operated largely by the United States, as well as in a growing number of jointly-operated bases. In a related issue, after twelve years of negotiations and delays, the Japanese government announced on January 2 that it was ready to move forward with construction plans for a replacement for the Futenma air strips in Okinawa – potentially removing a long-standing strain in the alliance relationship.

Still, both countries must balance a desire for such operational enhancements with a fear of entrapment in a security contingency beyond what each state’s national interest can justify. Japan long has displayed concern over entrapment into the larger conflicts in which its superpower ally often found itself entangled, and continues to fear such entrapment both regionally (particularly related to China) and globally (such as with Iran and the broader war on terror). A future U.S. shift toward greater diplomacy also could place additional tension on the alliance if Japan were expected to do more. At the same time, many Japanese also fear that a U.S. Democratic administration would move closer to China at the expense of Japan, and would perceive and deal with trade irritants in a way that could raise tensions between the United States and Japan. Hillary Clinton’s recent article in Foreign Affairs, where she wrote that the U.S. relationship with China “will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this new century,” exacerbated these fears.[3] Japan was mentioned only together with other states in the region.

More recently, the United States also has shown signs of entrapment fears, particularly as Japan’s relations with China soured during the Koizumi administration – though this seems to be changing for the better in Fukuda’s Japan. The possible ascension of a Democratic administration in Japan in 2008 or 2009, however, could send American suspicions in the other direction. Ozawa’s rhetorical stress on the centrality of the United Nations to Japan’s foreign policy could come in conflict with bilateral U.S.-Japan cooperation, and may make Japan less willing to “burden share” on U.S. initiatives.

It is important to note that security issues, though important, will not be the primary issues of the Japanese election. Contestation over the domestic agenda (familiar issues to Americans such as taxes, pensions, health care, and growing income inequality) may have negative spin-off effects for the security relationship, however. For example, if the DPJ finds itself in the Kantei and needs to find money for its domestic agenda, it could advocate cuts in financial support for U.S. forces in Japan or to Japan’s already declining military spending overall. Even such indirect effects on the alliance would call into question the medium-term agreements for alliance deepening declared in 2006.

Ultimately, the necessary hedging strategies – in both electoral and international politics – that politicians and policymakers in both states will pursue set a limit for how interoperable, how deep, and how extensive the alliance between the United States and Japan can grow.



[1] Masakazu Hamazuna, “Politicians enter election mode,” The Daily Yomiuri, January 3, 2008, http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/20080103TDY03005.htm, accessed January 3, 2008.

[2] “New Year's Greetings Yasuo Fukuda_1.1.2008,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwtDu1KDYo4, accessed January 3, 2008.

[3] Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Security and Opportunity for the Twenty-first Century,” Foreign Affairs vol. 86, no. 2 (Nov/Dec 2007), p. 13.

SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 15