There is a palpable sense of anxiety in some quarters in Japan at the prospects of a Democratic Party of Japan-led majority emerging from the Aug. 30 Lower House elections.
The fear is that the DPJ will wreck the alliance with the United States. It mirrors the near-panic that gripped official Japan last year when it became clear that Barack Obama would defeat John McCain for the U.S. presidency.
A DPJ administration will not put the Japan-U.S. alliance at risk; in fact, it may even strengthen it.
Several factors militate against dramatic changes in Japan’s strategy if the DPJ outs the Liberal Democratic Party. The DPJ is not radically different in its main policy orientations from the LDP. Several of its leaders, such as Ichiro Ozawa, migrated from the governing party. Others are “native-born” DPJ politicians, but in several cases one suspects that these men and women joined the opposition mostly because it offered more opportunities for ambitious young men and women than the LDP, where hereditary privilege is entrenched. There is surely no indication that the DPJ is full of dangerous revolutionaries.
It is true that some in the DPJ trace their roots to socialist parties, and the DPJ candidates will need the cooperation of the small remnants of the Japanese left. But we must also remember that that within the LDP itself there have always been many conservatives whose opposition to the free market positioned them closer to the left than many realize.
Nor is the LDP only populated by hawks in matters of defense, there are quite a few doves in the ruling bloc as well (Komeito and the LDP). Despite North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests and growing Chinese military capabilities, the LDP-Komeito coalition has presided over annual cuts in Ministry of Defense spending while failing to implement several clauses of Japan-U.S. military agreements, most notably the Futenma U.S. Marine base relocation plan.
Another factor that will mitigate in favor of continuity is the nature of Japan’s security dilemma. Fundamentally, Japan has four choices when it comes to defending the country: (1) Unarmed pacifism. This was popular among the intelligentsia in the 1950s and 1960s but practically no one today believes this would be a rational choice. (2) Switching sides and becoming a junior partner of China could theoretically be an alternative, but such a reversal of alliances has no appeal in Japan. (3) Spending much more on the Self-Defense Forces to build a force that could free Japan from reliance on the U.S. would entail tens of trillions of yen of expenditures to triple or quadruple defense appropriations. This is a nonstarter in Japan. (4) Therefore, by default, the current system of minimal defense spending coupled with the extension of U.S. deterrence ends up being the option that enjoys broad support in mainstream Japanese thinking. It gives Tokyo some influence in Washington, provides the support of the world’s strongest military power, and requires hosting only a small number of U.S. service personnel: Outside Okinawa, the American military footprint is minuscule.
Support for the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty in Nagata-cho is reinforced by the evolution of Japanese public opinion in the past two decades. There is an undercurrent of worry about China and North Korea that transcends party lines among Japanese voters. This fear pushes Japan toward closer ties with the U.S. It also discourages politicians from playing the anti-U.S. card since many Japanese see the U.S. as an ally against threats from China and North Korea.
It was noticeable that then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did not suffer at the polls from his close association with U.S. President George W. Bush’s unpopular Iraq War.
A DPJ victory actually would could bolster the Japan-U.S. Alliance. It will demonstrate that the relationship between Tokyo and Washington is more than just an LDP-U.S. alliance. This would elevate Trans-Pacific ties to the same mature level as NATO, which has thrived despite the frequent changes of political leadership in European capitals.
At the policy level, the DPJ’s stated interest in United Nations-mandated activities could benefit the U.S. U.N.-led peacekeeping operations (PKOs) serve U.S. (and Japanese) interests. Therefore, Washington could take advantage of a DPJ administration to encourage much greater Japanese contributions to U.N. PKO missions.
Moreover, after the almost uninterrupted rule of the LDP and its predecessors since the Occupation, the alliance would benefit from new thinking in Japan. In particular, there has been an unfortunate tendency in Tokyo to see American efforts to engage China as detrimental to Japan. Neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have neglected the strengthening of U.S. military capabilities and the Japan-U.S. alliance. Nevertheless, many Japanese aligned with the LDP have mistakenly interpreted efforts to engage China as hostility, or at least malign neglect, of their country.
Hopefully, a new administration in Tokyo will realize that Japan should very much encourage and assist the U.S. as it devotes an enormous amount of effort to attempting to develop a productive relationship with Beijing.
Robert Dujarric heads the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus (firstname.lastname@example.org)