Sunday, September 13, 2009

What Alliance?

There has been considerable handwringing in the Western press, especially among Americans, over the future of the U.S.-Japan military alliance under the new regime. Will Japan’s new masters seek to undermine the security of Asia and American interests by steering a more independent course?

Never mind that the incoming prime minister Yukio Hatoyama has stated that the alliance is fundamental to Japan’s security and that he has no intention of undermining what pundits on both sides of the Pacific persist in calling the “cornerstone” of America’s position in Asia.

A cornerstone, perhaps, but not an alliance. Japan is a close friend, fellow democracy, trading partner and increasingly a collaborator on the world stage. But it is not an ally. That is strictly a courtesy title, and since the health of the “alliance” is going to come under increasing scrutiny in coming months one should have a clearer idea of what it really is.

The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, signed with Japan in 1960 replacing an earlier treaty, is basically a deal. The U.S. promises to defend Japan if it comes under attack, with nuclear weapons if necessary (the nuclear umbrella). In exchange, Japan provides the U.S. with bases which it can use as it sees fit to advance its greater security interests in Asia and as far as the Middle East.

Those bases are not necessarily designed, or at present even configured to merely defend Japan. In the past they have been staging areas for the Vietnam War and now the Afghanistan War. The largest air base near Tokyo, Yokota AFB, for example, hasn’t had a permanent collection attack aircraft or interceptors for decades. Indeed, according to Kyodo News Service, Washington is considering withdrawing the wing of F-16s at Misawa AFB and reducing the number of f-15s at Kadena AFB in Okinawa.

Japan, however, is not obligated to come to the defense of the U.S. if it is attacked. Indeed, it would be illegal for Tokyo to do so under the current liberal interpretation of its American-written constitution, which rather explicitly prohibits Japan from possessing any military force whatsoever.

This provision – Article 9 – has been interpreted broadly enough to permit Japan to build one of the largest and most sophisticated militaries on the globe. But the clause has still been interpreted in such a way as to prevent “collective defense” In other words, Japan can defend itself but not others.

Nobody worried much about collective defense during most of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was considered the main threat. But it has grown into an issue with the emergence of a bellicose nuclear-armed North Korea and to a lesser extent, the rapid modernization of China’s armed forces.

North Korea’s recent test of a multi-stage rocket in April, which it fired directly over Japan landing in the North Pacific, raised the interesting speculation whether Japan could legally shoot down a North Korean missile headed toward the U.S. that came within range. A strict reading of Japan’s laws would say no.

In another hypothetical, but possibly more realistic, scenario North Korean naval vessels intercept and threaten to sink or capture an unarmed or lightly armed American naval surveillance ship in international waters of the Sea of Japan. A Japanese destroyer happens to be close by. Does it come to the American vessel’s aid?

I would be willing to guess that Tokyo would order the destroyer to resist the North Koreans and let the legal chips fall where they may. The consequences of simply standing by and doing nothing would be politically devastating. The American public would never understand – or care about - the legal nuances “collective defense.”

(In the real U.S.S. Pueblo incident in 1968, the Japanese Self Defense Forces did not figure at all, nor, to my knowledge, were they called on for help. The U.S. had more assets in the region than it does now. That they could not be successfully deployed to defend the Pueblo from humiliating capture is another story).

When I came to Yokota as a junior officer shortly after the Pueblo Incident, U.S. forces in Japan and the Japanese Self Defense Forces might as well have existed on different plants. In all my time there I never once met a SDF officer. There was no liaison or coordination. No contact that I could see. Nothing. I never served in a NATO country, but I have to believe that there would have been much more social or professional intercourse with officers of the Royal Air force or the Belgian Air Force.

That began to change in the 1990s, the catalyst being the1991 Gulf War. Japan ponyed up billions of dollars to support the coalition, but, consistent with its anti-war principles, provided no troops. Tokyo was stunned afterwards at how ungrateful Washington and others were for their generous financial support. The wanted, to use the current vernacular, boots on the ground.

That began a slow evolution in Japan’s use of its military. The Diet (parliament) passed laws that allowed Japanese to participate in international peacekeeping missions in Cambodia and elsewhere. In 1996 Washington and Tokyo inked the Joint Security Declaration in which Japan promised to provide logistical support for U.S. forces stationed in Japan. Joint research in missile defenses was authorized.

In recent years Japanese armed forces have ventured far from Japan. For some years, a naval oiler has replenished ships, including American naval vessels, supporting operations over Afghanistan. But this had nothing to do with any kind of treaty obligation but more a general sense that Japan had to do something more in the War on Terror than write checks.

The defeated Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) made collective defense one of its manifesto planks. The triumphant Democratic part of Japan (DPJ) was silent on the matter. Speaking to journalists a couple months before the election, senior party leader Seiji Maehara dismissed the North Korean missile hypothetical as an “abstraction.”

This year, though, the Diet passed a law to formally authorize the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (navy) to take part in anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia. As part of the legislation, Japanese war ships were specifically authorized to come to the aid of non-Japanese vessels threatened by pirates. That may seem like an obvious thing, but in a sense it was revolutionary. It was the first time that Japan had taken a baby step toward collective defense.


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Tired Blood: LDP in Opposition

Spare a moment to reflect on the fate of Japan’s venerable Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as it surveys the wreckage from Sunday’s electoral tsunami that pushed the party from power for the first time since its founding in 1955.

Obviously, the big political story in Japan for the next few months will be whether the new masters, the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP), are up to prime time. Almost of equal importance is another question: Can the LDP survive in opposition?

After all, it has taken years for Japan’s democracy to evolve to the point where it has a two-party system, where two parties of roughly equal power alternate in power. It would be a shame if it turned out that the Sunday’s votes had simply exchanged one longtime one-party rule for that of another.

Not a few political scientists and pundits have wondered whether the LDP might disintegrate without the unifying glue of being in office, being able to hand out cabinet posts, and all of the other perks that come with holding on to power.

Even before all of the votes were counted, Prime Minister Taro Aso announced that he would step down as party president to atone for the defeat. That was hardly a surprise, and most of his fellow members probably are thinking to themselves: Don’t let the door hit you as you leave the room.

Still, it would be hugely unfair to attribute the LDP defeat to the prime minister himself. Aso made mistakes and committed gaffes in his nearly one-year tenure, but this was a vote against his party not Aso. For that matter, his successor, Yukio Hatoyama, isn’t exactly wildly popular either.

The LDP has scheduled an election to find a new party leader on Sept. 28, a week or so after the new government is sworn in, which means that prospective candidates, who just finished weeks of grueling campaigning, will have to criss-cross the country again to win votes from the prefectural party organizations.

As of this writing no, one has thrown his or her hat in the ring, and the post is considered wide open. Some might question who really would want the job? For the first time since 1993, when the LDP fell temporarily from power in a parliamentary maneuver, the post of party president does not automatically bring with it the job of prime minister.

One possible candidate to lead the party in opposition is Hidenao Nakagawa, who tried to foment a short-lived revolt against Aso back in July. Nakagawa was defeated in his constituency, but survived by winning on the proportional voting list (in Japan candidates can file for both single-seats and the PR list.)

In electoral district after electoral district, septuagenarian LDP Diet members, men and women who had been returned in eight, ten, twelve consecutive elections, who had served as cabinet ministers or faction leaders, fell to thirty-something political neophytes, many of them women. (Some, like Nakagawa, got back by being on the proportional list).

Yet many of the LDP old guard managed to survive. These included the last three prime ministers, Aso, Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe, three men responsible for the party’s steady decline over the last few years. So did former premier Yoshiro Mori, who may hold the world record for the lowest public approval rating of any democratically elected leader during his short term.

It appears that only those stalwart Liberal Democrats Party Diet members were re-elected who were so strongly entrenched in their constituencies that they could withstand the electoral tsunami. Many others did not. The LDP lost 181 seats, including some 66 which were won by “Koizumi’s children” in the 2005 election won by Japan’s last popular premier, Junichiro Koizumi.

Many of the losers were first time Diet members, elected in the Koizumi landslide four years ago, who had not had enough time to make their local political position impregnable. As American political scientist and commentator Tobias Harris put it: “The post-election LDP may be cursed with too many leaders and too few followers.”

If the future of the party depends on bringing in new people, younger, people, people with fresh ideas, then the LDP has a long, long way to go. Only five of the new parliamentary intake are members of the LDP (and one of them was Koizumi’s the son). By contrast, more than 150 Democrats were first-time law makers.

The former ruling party was virtually obliterated in Japan’s major cities. In Tokyo, the Democrats won 20 of the 25 seats, where it previously held only one. In Osaka it won 17 seats, where it had previously held two; Aichi prefecture, centered on Nagoya, gave the Democrats all their seats. But the party also swept the board in some rural prefectures, such as Niigata.

According to exit polls, about 30 percent of normal LDP supporters switched to the Democratic Party for this election. That figure, of course, partly explains the party’s success. But it also raises the intriguing question: Were these one-time protest votes, or will many of them permanently change their allegiance? The future of the LDP may ride on that answer.