A dramatic shift in foreign policy is unlikely under a new administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan because it hopes to ensure continuity despite vowing greater independence from the United States.
But foreign and security matters could easily emerge as flash points for the incoming administration, with the DPJ remaining vague apparently out of fear of causing discord among its members and the other parties with which it plans to form a coalition.
The diplomatic debut of DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama as prime minister is likely to come late this month when he will attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York and possibly meet with U.S. President Barack Obama.
“There will be meetings on climate change, nuclear disarmament and international finance. They are all extremely important,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said, indicating the diplomatic skills of the blue-blooded politician, who has long been an opposition member, will be put to the test quickly.
The DPJ said in its platform for Sunday’s Lower House election that it will build a “close and equal Japan-U.S. alliance” and will develop an “autonomous foreign policy strategy for Japan.”
It also said it will “propose” a revision of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement and “move in the direction of re-examining the realignment of the U.S. military forces in Japan and the role of U.S. military bases in Japan.”
But the wording amounted to a toning down of what the DPJ had previously said — a sign it is shifting to a more pragmatic position — and pundits believe a sudden, drastic change in foreign and defense policy is unlikely under the DPJ.
Hatoyama has said “continuity in diplomacy is important” and that he feels the need to first “build a relationship of trust” with Obama before making proposals on SOFA and other issues.
“Basically, I think the DPJ will acknowledge previous policies and then add changes little by little,” said political analyst Atsuo Ito.
But he warned that foreign and security issues will be an “Achilles heel” for the DPJ as its policies have wavered depending on the party leader, and that the DPJ has yet to set a clear direction on the issues even though it is more than 10 years old.
Comprising lawmakers of the right and left — defectors from the conservative Liberal Democratic Party and former socialists — the DPJ has often lacked consensus on foreign and security matters.
Adding to concerns are Hatoyama’s flip-flops on the prospects for Japan’s refueling mission in support of U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan.
Previously the DPJ had staunchly opposed the dispatch of Maritime Self-Defense Force ships to the Indian Ocean, with then-leader Ichiro Ozawa arguing that without United Nations authorization, the mission to provide logistic support for operations in and around Afghanistan violated the war-renouncing Constitution.
The DPJ platform, however, does not say whether the mission should be suspended. Hatoyama also said he will allow the mission to continue for the time being, although he said he will “basically not allow it to be extended beyond” January, when the law authorizing the mission expires.
This underscores sensitivity of the issue for the DPJ, which is apparently wavering between heeding calls from the United States to continue the mission and responding to demands from the Social Democratic Party, a possible coalition partner, which opposes deploying the Self-Defense Forces overseas.
The DPJ and the SDP also differ on the dispatch of MSDF ships for an antipiracy mission off Somalia. But the DPJ needs the cooperation of the SDP and another party, the People’s New Party (Kokumin Shinto), to ensure a majority in the Upper House.
Political analysts are divided on how the issue of the refueling mission will affect Japan-U.S. relations.
Tobias Harris, a Japan and East Asia specialist, said suspending the mission will be “a small victory” for the DPJ as it would allow the party to say at little cost that it has followed through on its election promises.
“I don’t think the Obama administration is going to throw a tantrum (even if the mission is suspended). . . . And considering that if it placates their coalition partners to the left, I think it’s really a very, very small price to pay,” Harris said.
But Yumi Hiwatari, a specialist in Japan-U.S. relations and defense issues at Sophia University, said suspending the refueling mission would damage bilateral ties, warning that a lack of clarity on key policies will make it difficult for the DPJ to build a relationship of trust with Washington.
“Does a ‘close and equal’ Japan-U.S. relationship mean for Japan to increase its military strength? Will the DPJ dare to spur a national debate on how the SDF should be used under such a policy?” Hiwatari said. “I don’t think the DPJ can win the trust of its ally when it’s either saying nothing or just being vague.”
She also suggested it would be difficult for Japan to find other ways to contribute to operations in Afghanistan when the refueling mission is considered the most Japan can do given its constitutional restrictions.
According to plans revealed in early August, the DPJ, as an alternative to the refueling mission, is considering beefing up its reconstruction and aid programs in Afghanistan, possibly by dispatching government and private-sector officials to relatively safe areas.
“But assistance by civilians is dangerous, for example in Kabul,” Hiwatari said.
While the spotlight will largely be on how Japan-U.S. relations are affected under the new administration, Japan’s neighbors are also paying attention to the election outcome.
Hatoyama is eager to strengthen ties with other Asian countries, but a source dealing with Japan-South Korea relations is wary of the hawkish views of some DPJ members on China and South Korea, particularly regarding historical issues.
As for the decades-old territorial dispute with Russia, another senior Foreign Ministry official said there are “not many options” for realizing the goal of regaining control of the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, even under a DPJ-led government.
But Hiwatari said inconsistencies in foreign policy and other issues may not necessarily be bad for the country.
“If problems come to light, then the people may realize the need to hold discussions on how we want our country to be. That may be what Japan needs to revive.”