Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was offered two scripts by the Foreign Ministry ahead of the March invasion of Iraq by the United States.
The first expressed Tokyo’s “understanding” of America’s plans, while the other affirmed its “support” for the maneuver.
In announcing Japan’s formal position on the matter, Koizumi chose the second option without hesitation, according to a senior ministry official.
The prime minister further emphasized his commitment to the U.S. alliance during a telephone conversation with President George W. Bush on July 28 — two days after the Diet cleared a controversial bill paving the way for a dispatch of Self-Defense Forces units to Iraq.
“The passage of the Iraq restoration support bill is part of (our campaign) to strengthen the ‘Japan-U.S. alliance in the global context’ agreed upon during our meeting (at Bush’s private ranch in Crawford, Texas, in May),” Koizumi told Bush.
Although Koizumi has often been lambasted for striking economic and other compromises with his opponents in the Liberal Democratic Party and the nation’s bureaucracy, his support for the U.S. has been steadfast.
“Mr. Koizumi’s policy on the U.S. is clear, consistent and quick in taking necessary measures to support the U.S.,” said another Foreign Ministry official.
“That is why Washington is so fond of him.”
During the 2 1/2 years that Koizumi has been in power, the primacy of the Japan-U.S. alliance has become more lucid, even when Washington has been at odds with other key members of the United Nations.
Koizumi has been quick to voice strong backing for two key U.S. military campaigns — those in Afghanistan and Iraq — and has passed legislation allowing SDF units to support these operations.
One major factor behind this scenario is Koizumi’s weak political base within the LDP.
Unlike many of his predecessors, the prime minister lacks solid support among the party’s major factions; the cozy Koizumi-Bush relationship has thus played a key role in stabilizing his administration.
Indeed, in announcing support for the U.S.-led war on Iraq, Koizumi even seemed to defy his biggest source of domestic support — public opinion. Media polls suggested that the Japanese public generally opposed a military campaign targeting Iraq.
“The ruling party of the Koizumi Cabinet is the
U.S.,” said the latter Foreign Ministry official, adding that dissent within the LDP is restrained somewhat by the fact that Koizumi has the full support of Japan’s key security ally and a major trading partner.
When the ministry official recently visited Washington, one U.S. government official told him, “Whatever Koizumi does, we support.”
Some observers agree that Japan had no choice but to support the U.S. in light of the threat posed by North Korea — the overriding logic used by Koizumi to endorse Bush’s war plan.
“Would France or Germany send military troops if Japan is attacked by North Korea? I don’t think so,” said the other Foreign Ministry official, who also asked not to be named.
Koji Murata, an assistant professor of international relations at Doshisha University in Kyoto, pointed out that the close relationship with the U.S. acts as a deterrent for North Korea.
It also places Japan in the path of any nations eager to improve relations with the Bush administration, Murata said.
Pyongyang reportedly agreed to launch preparatory talks in February 2002 for a historic summit between Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il after Bush denounced that country as part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and Iran, in his State of the Union address the previous month, Murata said.
“Because the U.S. took a tough stance toward the North, Pyongyang apparently attempted to improve relations with Tokyo, Washington’s key ally,” he said.
But Tokyo’s relationship with Washington has also led to an expanded — and potentially riskier — overseas role for the SDF.
While the government has insisted that SDF troops will only engage in logistic support missions in “noncombat” areas of Iraq, there is no guarantee that Japanese troops will not come under guerrilla attacks.
An apparent suicide bombing in Baghdad last month showed that even the U.N., which tried to dissuade Bush from military action and instead allow U.N. inspectors to continue investigating Iraq’s alleged program to develop weapons of mass destruction, is a target of terrorist attacks.
Fully aware that the specter of SDF casualties could trigger a public outcry, the government will probably delay its dispatch until the security situation in Iraq has stabilized.
But Tokyo also faces pressure from Washington for an early dispatch. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage reportedly warned a senior Japanese official last month that Japan should not “walk away” from the task.
Motofumi Asai, a professor of international relations at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, believes that Washington will maintain friendly ties with Tokyo as long as it serves U.S. interests.
“If Koizumi expects Bush to provide the same amount of cooperation or loyalty (toward Japan), he is making a big mistake,” Asai said.
Japan is seeking to resolve issues tied to Pyongyang’s suspected nuclear program, its missile development and its abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.
It believes that North Korea will not yield on the abductions issue without pressure from the U.S.
While Bush has already joined Koizumi in condemning the abductions, Asai says there is no guarantee that the U.S. will maintain this position.
“If North Korea shows signs of compromise in future talks on the nuclear issue, the U.S. will probably tell Japan to resolve the abductions agenda through separate bilateral talks,” he said.
U.S. pressure on Japan to postpone a pending oil deal with Iran may simply be another example of Washington seeking to interfere in Japan’s interests if they run counter to its own.
Amid U.S. pressure in July, Japan urged a state-backed consortium of Japanese firms to delay signing a contract on the Azadegan oil field in western Iran.
Washington suspects Tehran may be developing nuclear weapons.
The Azadegan project has been discussed for years as part of an effort to diversify Japan’s oil supply sources.
Some pundits warn that although the alliance with the U.S. will continue to be a key factor in Japan’s future security, Tokyo may end up yielding to U.S. policy if it does not have a clear vision of its own national interests.
“Koizumi’s policies on Japan-U.S. relations seem to be those of opportunism,” asserted Jitsuo Tsuchiyama, a professor of international security at Aoyama Gakuin University.
In this respect, he cited the Iraq-SDF bill, which was hastily passed through the final month of an extended Diet session.
Tsuchiyama said that Koizumi should plan ahead by setting up a Japan-U.S. consultation forum tasked with mapping out a shared view of what they consider would constitute a security emergency in the Asian region, along with the potential response.
He said that the two governments should discuss U.S. expectations of Japan, in addition to the limits on Tokyo’s support for Washington in these times of crisis.
“For instance, if Japan fails to respond to a U.S. request for support when there is an emergency on the Korean Peninsula, the Japan-U.S. alliance may cease to function,” he said. “But I am afraid Mr. Koizumi does not have such awareness of these issues.”