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Japan’s role in U.S.’ Asia pivot

by Glen S. Fukushima

The Washington Post

Proponents of the Obama administration’s “pivot,” or rebalance of attention and resources, toward Asia should be heartened by the results of Japan’s parliamentary election. The Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) landslide victory in the Lower House on Dec. 16 augurs well for a reinvigorated relationship between the United States and Japan.

The reasons are threefold. First, the LDP is experienced in U.S.-Japan alliance management, much more so than the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which had ousted the LDP from power in September 2009 after half a century. Although the DPJ was well-intentioned, its tenure the past three years was plagued with intraparty bickering, friction with the professional bureaucracy and a generally ineffectual and non-strategic foreign policy.

Second, the LDP will rely more on the expertise, experience and continuity offered by the professional bureaucrats, who were cast aside by the DPJ, especially in the Cabinets headed by Prime Ministers Yukio Hatoyama (2009-2010) and Naoto Kan (2010-11). Perhaps reflecting their shortcomings as chief executive and in managing Japan’s relationship with the United States, Hatoyama chose not to run in the Dec. 16 elections and Kan lost his seat in the Diet to a relatively unknown LDP candidate. Of the three DPJ prime ministers since 2009, only Yoshihiko Noda, who served from 2011 to 2012 and whom many consider similar in style to previous LDP prime ministers, won re-election.

Third, the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, values the Japan-U.S. alliance and has said publicly that his top foreign policy priority is to restore the trust and confidence that has characterized Japan’s relationship with the U.S. since the end of World War II.

Although he is often portrayed as a nationalist, Abe, who studied in the United States and speaks English, is a staunch advocate of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. That treaty was renewed and ratified by the Diet in 1960, in the face of mass protests, under the leadership of his grandfather, then-Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.

But there are caveats. The LDP victory was more a rebuke of the DPJ than a resounding endorsement of the LDP. Although voters see the LDP as more experienced and disciplined than the DPJ, they perceive that it has done little to reform itself since its defeat in 2009. For instance, all five contenders for the party presidency in October (Abe, Yoshimasa Hayashi, Shigeru Ishiba, Nobuteru Ishihara and Nobutaka Machimura) are the sons of LDP politicians, despite widespread criticism of the LDP’s perpetuation of inbred political dynasties.

What Japanese voters want most from their prime minister is leadership to revive the economy. The postwar economic miracle slowed in the early 1990s and has stagnated since the middle of that decade. The desire for economic growth is clearly widespread. The three major issues defining the platforms of virtually all the political parties running Dec. 16 impinged on the economy: the future of nuclear power, the proposed increase in the consumption tax and whether Japan should join the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Abe’s tenure as prime minister is likely to be judged more on whether he can revive Japan’s economy than on advancing the national security and patriotic agenda he holds dear.

For the Obama administration, the good news is that Abe is staunchly pro-American and wants to strengthen the U.S.-Japan security relationship. The bad news is that his revisionist views of history and controversial views of Asia could lead him to speak and act in ways that exacerbate tensions with neighboring countries, especially China and South Korea. On the other hand, Abe considers himself a pragmatic realist, and some Japanese political observers even see in him a parallel with U.S. President Richard Nixon, who, precisely because of his conservative credentials, could open the way to improving ties with China. It is not yet clear which side of Abe we are likely to see. Can the U.S. influence the outcome?

The Obama administration declared its intention to shift the U.S.’ focus to Asia, which is concurrently the center of the world’s economic growth and a potential source of long-term strategic challenges. Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, a technology leader, a stable democracy and “cornerstone ally” of the U.S.; the country is key to the success of the Obama policy.

It is imperative that the Obama administration devote the time, attention and resources necessary to forge an effective partnership with the new government of Japan to convert the “rebalance” from vision to reality and to ensure that the U.S. can benefit fully from our renewed engagement with Asia.

Glen Fukushima is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. He was deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for Japan and China from 1988 to 1990.