SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 21 of 82 « Previous | Next »

Fukuda's Resignation: A Pandora’s Box for the Japan-U.S. Alliance?

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s abrupt resignation on September 1 impressed on the world the fact that Japan’s politics are in turmoil. Political instability in Tokyo will hamper the implementation of government policies, and it is likely to exacerbate the recent fraying of security relations with the United States.

Taro Aso, the secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and former foreign minister, is the frontrunner to be chosen the president of the LDP and then the new Prime Minister at the end of September. Although the major issue in the ongoing LDP presidential election seems to be how to rebuild the country’s weakening economy, a real national security challenge will develop after the new Prime Minister decides to hold a Lower House election, which many expect to come as early as this November.

The LDP’s Long Decline

It has to be pointed out first that Prime Minister Fukuda’s resignation does not mark a “return” to political turmoil in the LDP. Indeed, the LDP’s long-held power has been decaying since the beginning of the 1990s. Only when the maverick Junichiro Koizumi became president of the LDP and Prime Minister of Japan in 2001 was this trend temporarily halted.

Ironically, Prime Minister Koizumi’s slogan was, “Demolish the LDP!” The Japanese public at first welcomed that call, believing that the party had drifted away from the needs of ordinary people. Instead, many Japanese felt, the LDP poured too much energy into seeking benefits for its internal factions and sustaining pork-barrel interests for various advocacy groups.

In the fall of 2006, having emasculated the factions, promoted competition and freer markets, and reformed the LDP's traditional style of big-ticket spending, Koizumi left office. Although he had pushed through many reforms, Koizumi also left unwelcome legacy among the public: too much emphasis on free competition and cuts in government spending had caused the gap between rich and poor to grow larger, and this would be felt most acutely after he had left the scene.

Koizumi’s charisma and personal popularity, combined with the people’s tendency to not focus on readjustments that were some years off, helped the LDP avoid serious backlash against the reforms during Koizumi’s tenure. But the pain of the reforms was felt during the terms of his successors, Shinzo Abe and then Yasuo Fukuda, and these leaders lacked enough personal appeal to convince the populace of the need for the reforms. For example, cost-cutting reforms in medical care for the elderly were passed by the Diet in 2006 under the Koizumi administration, but did not take effect until April 2008, under Fukuda. The new medical scheme is widely unpopular, and Fukuda had to bear the brunt of the public’s criticism, deepening his unpopularity and hastening his departure.

Both Abe and Fukuda had to consider modifying the extremism of the Koizumi’s reform plans in many areas, and they were further pressed by the LDP’s revived factions. Thus, somewhat paradoxically, the party once again began to appear out of touch. The waning of the LDP’s power had resumed.

The Real Challenge

The most serious blow for the LDP came when it lost its grip on the Diet, in July 2007, as a result of an Upper House election. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by Ichiro Ozawa, has since then controlled the Upper House. Ozawa has been on the frontline blocking most legislation that the government attempts to pass, making the LDP appear even more ineffective.

The DPJ’s attacks on the LDP have been effective, resulting in the humiliating consecutive surprise resignations by Abe in September 2007 and Fukuda this year. As a consequence, the public’s disdain and distrust of the LDP seem to have become even deeper than before, meaning there is a high possibility that the Ozawa's DPJ might win the coming Lower House election (as early as November 2008, just after the American presidential election), and form a government. Fukuda’s resignation is not the cause of the upcoming election – it was to be held by September 2009 anyway, according to the Constitution – but the awkwardness of Fukuda’s abrupt surrender further confused Japanese politics in the run-up to the balloting.

After the election, both Japan and the United States will face a real challenge in maintaining and strengthening their bilateral alliance. Analysts should therefore pay even more attention to Ozawa’s moves – both his past record and his pledges for the future – than to those of the incoming LDP Prime Minister.

Ozawa's Past and Future

In fact, it was Ichiro Ozawa who sparked the LDP’s decline in the early 1990s when, as Secretary-General of the party, he played a key role in splitting it and driving it into opposition for the first time in nearly forty years. The LDP's time in opposition lasted only one year, but it was at that time, in 1993, when Ozawa unveiled his basic convictions for Japan’s foreign and security policies.

On the crucial and controversial issue of overseas deployment of the Self Defense Forces (SDF) for international peace activities, for example, Ozawa’s basic argument is that the SDF activities should be carried out based on United Nations resolutions, rather than on alliance-based agreements with the United States.

In his book “Blueprint for a New Japan,” released in June 1993, he wrote:

“Under the current Constitution, it is possible to dispatch the SDF as a standby force in the service of the United Nations and allow it to engage in overseas operations. This is because such activities would be carried out under the supervision of the United Nations….”

The core of his argument is to put supreme importance on UN authority. He clearly stated his opposition to Japan’s participation in U.S.-led military activities that are not based on UN resolutions. He also expressed his motive, saying, “Japan has to have an equal relationship with the U.S. It should have its own voice.”

It became obvious last year that Ozawa’s approach to this issue had not changed, when the DPJ objected to the SDF’s mission of refueling coalition naval vessels performing anti-terrorism operations in the Indian Ocean. Ozawa and the DPJ insisted that the U.S.-led operation was based on the idea of collective self-defense, which in Japan is not permitted under the government’s interpretation of the Constitution. The DPJ was able to force the expiration of the legislation authorizing the SDF’s mission. (The refueling mission was suspended for as long as four months, at huge political cost to the ruling coalition. It was only resumed when the Lower House overturned the Upper House action, but that required a two-thirds majority.) Ozawa’s future policies are highly likely to adhere to the same line he has held for the last 15 years.

From an operational point of view, the contribution of the refueling mission may be small. Nonetheless, Tokyo puts much importance on it, as it symbolizes that Tokyo is serious about supporting Washington and acting as a reliable ally.

The U.S. position that Japan, as an ally, should play a wider role in the international sphere has been consistent, no matter which party is in the White House. It was under the Clinton administration that Tokyo and Washington agreed to reinforce the alliance after the end of the Cold War, stressing a more proactive role for the SDF in case of a contingency on the Korean peninsula. Analysts in both Japan and the U.S. agree that even if Democrat Barack Obama takes office in 2009, Washington’s basic position would not be drastically different. Some policymakers in Tokyo therefore are already concerned that another suspension of the Indian Ocean refueling mission would not be welcomed by the new U.S. administration, which is certain to focus on Afghanistan once it is inaugurated.

Elections on Both Sides

Some anticipate that Ozawa, if he becomes Prime Minister, would become more rational and would maintain Tokyo’s conventional position, which centers the Japan-U.S. alliance as the linchpin of its foreign and security policies. Other observers doubt this, citing the issue of the SDF as one of Ozawa’s central and long-standing beliefs.

Therefore, if Ozawa takes office, the alliance could face fundamental challenges. Under the unified control of the DPJ, the Diet should become far more stable than it is today. Ozawa would possibly initiate discussions over the SDF’s international activities, seeking to identify basic principles and settling on a permanent law. Deliberation on these sensitive topics has long been avoided, as they are possible only when the political fundamentals are stable – otherwise the government would exhaust itself and consume too many political resources. Once broached, obviously the issue of defining the UN authority would generate a contentious debate, and might not move in the direction Washington hopes. Without question, it would affect the future of the Japan-U.S. alliance.

In any event, policy makers in both Tokyo and Washington should begin making proactive approaches to the DPJ immediately, while it is still the opposition. The coming Lower House election might lead to major changes in Japan’s security policy, and the alliance’s anti-terrorism strategy might be affected.

Of course, if the LDP wins the election, then Taro Aso (or whoever becomes the Prime Minister later this month) would remain in office. As a former Foreign Minister under both Koizumi and Abe, Aso would be sure to show strong support for Japan’s security alliance with the U.S. He would be more positive on expanding the SDF's involvement in overseas peace activities in cooperation with the U.S.

But such a course would also cause domestic difficulties in Japan. First, the Diet would move into an even more unstable condition than the current hung parliament. Even if it manages to win a plurality in the Lower House and maintain its coalition government, the LDP’s current all-out majority, which was attained by Koizumi in 2005, would almost certainly decrease. That would imperil the LDP’s parliamentary weapon of last resort – the constitutional ability of the Lower House to overturn Upper House legislation – and would mean further policy and political gridlock.

Second, even the LDP's coalition partner, the New Komeito, might oppose consideration of a wider international role for the SDF. New Komeito supporters are known to be mostly pacifists, and party officials argue that they would be dissatisfied with such a discussion. The party’s inward-looking attitude might be a constant plague to an LDP Prime Minister.

In either case, if conscientious lawmakers in both the ruling and opposition parties get seriously frustrated with persistent gridlock, there might be a chance for a realignment of the political parties along ideological and policy lines: a fundamental repainting of the political map of Japan, which would also mean further confusion in Tokyo.

While the positioning of Japan-U.S. security ties in relation to the role of the SDF may become the most contentious and fundamental item on Japan’s foreign policy agenda after the next election, there are also some differences between Aso and Ozawa on other issues such as China, North Korea, and the relocation of U.S. military forces in Okinawa. On the topic of Japan’s wartime atrocities, one of the key issues between Japan and other Asian countries, Ozawa argues that Japan should admit that what wartime leaders did was wrong. Rightist Aso is not so explicit.

With the exception of Koizumi’s five and half year era, Japanese politics have been unstable since 1993. There have been ten Prime Ministers (and only two American presidents) in these fifteen years, with the eleventh coming in this month. The year 2009 will be a significant transitional period for the Japan-U.S. alliance, as new administrations on both sides will determine the direction of the relationship. If the LDP finally surrenders the Kantei (Prime Minister’s Office) to the DPJ after the election, strains on the Japan-U.S. alliance are sure to appear as fundamental issues about the SDF will be raised as the main agenda item in Tokyo. If the LDP does hold on, it will only cause gridlock in the Diet to worsen and the U.S. may begin to grow frustrated with inaction in the alliance. Regardless of who the new leaders are in Tokyo and Washington, it is quite likely that they will have to face the effects of the Pandora’s Box that Fukuda’s resignation seems to have opened.

SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 21