Looming elections expected to test Bush-Koizumi honeymoon in 2004

by Yoichi Kosukegawa


Japan has been a strong supporter of major U.S. foreign policies for the past three years based on the close personal relationship between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President George W. Bush.

But that honeymoon could enter a rocky period in 2004 due to the summer House of Councilors election and Nov. 2 U.S. presidential poll.

“2004 is a more critical year because both are in a situation where they have to subject themselves once again to a democratic process and they could come out weaker,” said Henry Nau, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

Since Bush took office in January 2001, Koizumi has been a big backer of his major policies — from the fight against terrorism and the U.S. war in Afghanistan to the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear arms program and missile defense initiative.

In 2003, their relationship took on an even greater role as Koizumi backed Bush’s policy toward Iraq. He expressed support for the U.S.-led invasion immediately after it began in March and pledged $5 billion over four years to help with Iraq’s postwar reconstruction.

Despite public concern about the Iraqi security situation, he also decided in early December to send Self-Defense Forces troops to the country to provide humanitarian and reconstruction aid.

“Koizumi has decided to, in the national interest of Japan, stay with Bush,” said James Auer, director of the Center for U.S.-Japan Studies and Cooperation at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

“Given the fact that Japan is really threatened at least indirectly by terrorism, directly by North Korea, what Koizumi is doing makes very good sense,” said Auer, former senior director for Japan in the defense secretary’s office.

Bush for his part invited Koizumi to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in May despite his tight schedule. Hosting a guest at the Texas ranch is considered a show of strong personal ties and carries more weight than a meeting at the White House or the Camp David presidential retreat outside Washington.

Japan-U.S. ties have now reached the point where they draw criticism in Japan that Koizumi is at Bush’s beck and call, and even those advocating a stronger bilateral alliance are worried that there is little room for more improvement.

But Koizumi’s decision to send GSDF troops to Iraq could strain bilateral relations, particularly as the Upper House election approaches.

“Should the GSDF deployment get delayed into spring, it will be increasingly difficult for Koizumi politically to send the (troops) to Iraq, especially if security in Iraq does not improve,” said Yuki Tatsumi, research associate for the International Security Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The SDF dispatch is politically sensitive in Japan, given the war-renouncing Constitution. Koizumi is the first prime minister to send SDF members to a country where fighting is taking place, and if GSDF troops suffer casualties in Iraq it could deal a fatal blow to him.

“Defeat in the Upper House election will mean Koizumi’s political death as a prime minister and he will turn into a lame duck at that very moment,” Tatsumi said. “Then it may be impossible for Koizumi to keep his promise to the United States, which could strain the relationship.”

Auer meanwhile said the SDF dispatch is basically a domestic issue for Japan and that its development would have little impact on the U.S. even if Japan becomes less cooperative with a change in government.

“What Koizumi has done is highly appreciated. But frankly speaking, Japan is not doing very much,” he said. “Domestically in Japan, this is a big deal, but to the United States, it’s not so big.”

Turning to the U.S. presidential election, Nau said there is only a quarter of a chance that a Democratic candidate could win, given that the U.S. economy is going to be in good shape and that Bush has prevented another major terrorist attack on American soil.

Nau said the U.S. remains in a state of war and thus the American people are going to be reluctant to change leaders.

“Realities are all on the side of Bush and Koizumi,” he said. “If they are reaffirmed in their positions in 2004, the honeymoon is going on.”

Echoing Nau’s view, Auer also said the directions of the U.S. economy and the Iraqi situation are looking favorable to Bush and suggested that the cozy ties between the two leaders are unlikely to come to an end anytime soon.

“It seems to me that the most likely thing is it would continue, or, if the situation in the Middle East gets better, then it might become stronger,” Auer said.

But Tatsumi pointed out that even if Bush is re-elected, a possible new Cabinet could affect relations.

Japan has so far benefited greatly from the presence of senior officials who champion U.S.-Japan relations, including Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Michael Green, senior director for Asia in the White House’s National Security Council.

“Should they choose to leave the administration at the end of Bush’s first term, it can change the tone of the relationship altogether,” Tatsumi said. “All in all, it is fair to say that U.S.-Japan relations will enter a period of much political uncertainty, and no one should assume that the current positive relationship will continue effortlessly.”