WASHINGTON – The United States hopes Japan’s Upper House election will bring political stability to its key regional ally that will in turn yield progress on long-pending bilateral issues, an expert on Tokyo-Washington relations said.
“What the American officials want is . . . political stability” in Japan, said Mike Mochizuki, associate professor of political science and international relations at George Washington University.
Bilateral negotiations over key issues, such as the relocation of the U.S. Futenma air station in Okinawa Prefecture and Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, have become bogged down by the revolving door of prime ministers in Tokyo.
The nation has seen a new prime minister sworn in almost every year since 2006, due mainly to the absence of strong leadership and infighting within both the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan, which was in office from 2009 to 2012.
“That’s what, I think, the American policymakers see as not a good thing,” Mochizuki said.
Although the July 21 House of Councilors election has not been a major topic in political circles in Washington, the administration of President Barack Obama still has to deal with contentious issues including Japan’s accession to the TPP trade liberalization negotiations amid strong opposition from the U.S. auto industry.
Both countries also need to push the long-overdue realignment of U.S. forces deployed in Okinawa as part of Washington’s strategic military re-balancing toward the Asia-Pacific region.
The Obama administration is already busy dealing with a spate of diplomatic issues since the start of his second term, notably Syria’s ongoing civil war and ties with China and Russia after the whistle was blown by Edward Snowden on clandestine surveillance of Americans by the U.S. National Security Agency.
How to deal with the ouster of democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt and continued political unrest in the country is another major challenge for the United States, which provides Cairo with military support of $1.5 billion (¥152 billion) annually.
Washington thus wants Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to be a solid partner that won’t cause any fresh bilateral problems while working to ease tensions with Japan’s neighbors. That would allow the U.S. to focus on other issues in East Asia, especially its cyberespionage dispute with China and North Korea’s nuclear threat, observers said.
Ties between Tokyo and Beijing have become strained in light of China’s assertive claim to the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands. Chinese authorities have been sending ships into Japanese territorial waters around the East China Sea islets on a regular basis since Tokyo effectively nationalized the chain last September.
Surveys ahead of the Upper House poll suggest the LDP-led ruling bloc will win a handsome majority in the chamber, following its landslide victory in December’s general election.
If the LDP sweeps the upcoming vote, it would be the first time in six years that any party has held a majority in both chambers of the Diet. Founded in 1955, the LDP has ruled for the vast majority of the postwar period.
Concerns are rising in the United States that, in the event of such an outcome, Abe and other senior figures in the LDP may feel sufficiently emboldened to make indiscreet remarks about historical issues in Asia before and during the war, further souring Japan’s relations with its neighbors and impacting U.S. policymaking.
Jeffrey Bader, a former senior adviser on Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council in the Obama administration, criticized Abe for arguing the word “invasion” has no established definition in the context of Japan’s wartime rule over much of Asia.
Tensions were hardly eased by the apparent justification by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who co-heads opposition group Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), of the Imperial Japanese military’s network of brothels across Asia and its coercion of women from the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere into sexual servitude. A U.S. Department of State spokeswoman branded Hashimoto’s remarks “outrageous.”
On top of that, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, Abe’s right-hand man, and around 160 other Diet lawmakers in April visited war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, angering China and South Korea, who view the Shinto shrine as a symbol of Japan’s past military aggression.
Abe has expressed his intention to visit Yasukuni in his official capacity of prime minister, though he has so far refrained from doing so due to diplomatic considerations, according to his aides.
Any trip by Abe to Yasukuni, which honors convicted Class-A war criminals along with the nation’s war dead, “will damage relations with China, it will damage relations with (South) Korea and it might even damage relations with the United States,” warned Mochizuki of George Washington University.