Mr. Kan, stop wasting time

by Hisahiko Okazaki

It has taken the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) two long months to settle on the continuation of Kan Naoto as prime minister. Whatever past grudges or future intricacies might exist, the Kan Cabinet must get down to work without further delay.

It is excruciating to think how much time the DPJ has wasted since it came to power last year concerning Japan’s national interest in its foreign and security policies. The recent incident off the Senkaku Islands is particularly alarming and reminds us that we cannot afford to lose any more time.

After twists and turns, the DPJ government finally decided to uphold the original plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko, as proposed by the former Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito government. While these twists themselves have been a tremendous waste of time, they have further complicated the problem.

Moreover, because of this wishy-washy handling of affairs, Japan’s international standing has suffered lasting damage. The reference to Japan as the cornerstone of East Asia — a set phrase used to describe Japan for decades — has disappeared from U.S. documents on national defense released in the first half of this year. It might take years to bring back the phrase now that it has been removed. It may never come back.

International situations are in constant flux and they have changed drastically in this wasted year. More conspicuous is the tremendous expansion of China’s military power. Even more important is the change in the U.S. perception of the threat from China.

To be sure, there are some short-term factors behind the recent changes in American perceptions. President Barack Obama, in anticipation of his first official visit to China last November, postponed any measures that could provoke China, including arms sales to Taiwan, a meeting with the 14th Dalai Lama (the supreme Tibetan spiritual leader) as well as any denunciation of human rights conditions in China.

Since none of these measures could be put off indefinitely, Obama started carrying them out one after another this year, which invited strong (unnecessarily too strong, in my opinion) negative reactions from China that, in turn, worsened bilateral relations.

While this may prove to be a temporary phenomenon, the appeasing stance of the Obama government vis-a-vis China may have perpetually influenced the power balance between the dove and hawk factions within China. In any event, China’s expansion of its military power is a continuous, long-term trend, and it is inevitable that the United States and Japan will heighten their alert.

Countermeasures to greater Chinese military power available to the U.S. will be either the expansion of its own military capabilities or further reliance on its allies’ contributions. Since it has also become increasingly apparent during the past year that the U.S. is under tremendous financial strain because of the decline in tax revenue, the cost of the war in Afghanistan and financial outlays such as Medicare, greater expectations will naturally be placed on contributions from allies.

In fact, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Wallace Gregson in congressional testimony stressed the need for an expansion of Japan’s defense budget and, particularly, the need for Japan to sustain its host-nation support to U.S. military forces.

To be sure, this is not the first time this kind of thing has happened. In the early 1980s, for example, the U.S., in the face of the Soviet Union’s rapid military expansion, appealed to its allies to expand their own war preparedness, resulting in a powerful collaboration among America’s allies, which, in the end, won them the Cold War.

It should be recalled, though, that the events at that time took place on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization front. What is happening this time is on the East Asian front and, therefore, it is Japan that will have to respond first to the U.S. request ahead of other allies.

A mountain of issues related to the strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance awaits the Kan government’s attention, including the upgrading of its defense budget, host-nation support and the exercise of the right to collective self-defense. The National Defense Program Outline has long been left unattended. The situation in Asia has also changed greatly. Most of all, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration of the U.S. return to Asia, the Obama government is steering a course for stronger relations with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

ASEAN had originally been a stronghold of Japan. It was Japan that persuaded Southeast Asian countries to accept China and Korea into the ASEAN Regional Forum. It must have been on the assumption that Japan retained great influence over ASEAN that then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama advocated an East Asia Community at the outset of his government and that then Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada announced that the proposed community would not include the U.S.

ASEAN member nations have found that only the U.S. is reliable, having witnessed Secretary Clinton’s determined opposition to China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea. They expect nothing from Japan concerning their vital security affairs. The Obama government has announced its intention to participate in meetings related to the ASEAN Summit and is reportedly considering stationing its ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta. It is conceivable that the leadership of ASEAN might shift to the hands of the U.S. in the future.

While the U.S. will not be so narrow-minded as to exclude Japan from the regional community, Japan must render its full support for the return of the U.S. to Asia, leaving behind what happened during the months of the Hatoyama government. This is a crucial issue for Japan itself, especially in light of the Senkaku Islands dispute.

It so happens that the blue-ribbon committee on security and defense capabilities, appointed during the Hatoyama government, has recently published its final report. Since it is the report of the first committee officially set up under the DPJ government, the Kan administration must respect its recommendations.

If the DPJ wishes to emphasize its originality, it could start by reviewing the three-point ban on weapons exports that LDP governments dared not to address. It would contribute to the U.S.-Japan joint exploration of weapon systems. It is high time that the DPJ government depart from its student activistlike fervor and return to the basics of assuring the security of the Japanese people and strengthening the alliance with the U.S.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour Party government in the United Kingdom, which followed the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, succeeded in defending its national interest of maintaining the solid U.S.-British alliance by cooperating militarily with the U.S. in the war in Iraq — under calls for ethical action.

Strengthening the alliance with the U.S. under the banner of “freedom values” should be easy to swallow for the “liberal” DPJ government.

There is no time to waste. I urge the Kan government to push forward to address crucial issues.

Hisahiko Okazaki is former ambassador to Thailand. This article is a translation of his Sept. 17 Seiron column in the Sankei Shimbun, with some modification.