Japan’s New Prime Minister and Shifting Priorities: Washington Need Not Worry

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By Aaron Young – On September 25, 2007, Yasuo Fukuda, a former Chief Cabinet Secretary and son of late Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, emerged from his recent political shadows to become Prime Minister of Japan. He takes over a nation rocked by the political flux of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who abruptly resigned over health concerns. Restoring public confidence in a government recently wracked by numerous scandals and controversial misstatements has been announced as top priority to the 168th Session of the Japanese Diet. Such attention is necessary to demonstrate to the Japanese people that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) can govern effectively.

The announcement of Fukuda’s Cabinet on September 27, 2007 came with little surprise, as Fukuda retained fifteen of the seventeen members who served in his predecessor’s Cabinet. Public support for the cabinet is around fifty-eight percent with most polls attributing such high initial figures for its image of stability. The experience of the cabinet will be needed for the ongoing debates on the Marine Self-Defense Force (MSDF) deployment to the Indian Ocean, resolving issues regarding North Korea and reassuring the United States that Japan is a stable and committed partner within the US-Japan Security alliance.
In his address to the Japanese Diet, Fukuda offered his priorities: improving Social Security, curbing falling birth rates and addressing “disparities” arising from structural reforms and economic growth. Only at the end did he mention diplomacy and regional issues, which is a departure from his predecessor’s focus on regional politics. Those in Washington should not fear, however, a complete abandonment of Japanese regional and global engagement. Fukuda reaffirmed that the US-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy and continued efforts will be made to strengthen the relationship.

He currently faces difficult challenges with the opposition on the submission of a new bill to extend the MSDF deployment. The current deployment was allowed under provision of the Anti-Terror Special Measures Law (ATSML), a law addressing Japan’s response to the events of September 11, 2001. Attempts to extend the law were abandoned recently due to strong resistance from the opposition controlled Upper House. In contrast to the current Anti-Terror Special Measures Law, the proposed law would limit the MSDF activities to supplying fuel and water, and would not contain a provision requiring parliamentary authorization when launching an operation. Despite its limited scope, the bill, which is due to be submitted as early as next week, could still be seen as a way to demonstrate to the Bush administration and the world some level of Japanese commitment to the  ongoing war on terror.

In order to pass this legislation with the proper amount of time for debate with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the preparation of next year’s budget, LDP Secretary General Bunmei Ibuki and Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutake Machimura indicated on October 1, 2007, that the current extraordinary session of the Diet could be extended into mid-December. Such determination for the passage of the legislation should bode well for Fukuda’s planned visit to Washington in November.

A more conciliatory approach towards North Korea through the Six-Party Talks, suggested by Fukuda, should also ease the ongoing US-North Korea dialogue over Pyongyang’s nuclear program and help Japan move closer in line with the forum. The shift in tone towards diplomacy by Washington earlier this year worried many in Tokyo, as it was feared that Japan would become isolated in the framework. Many commentators in Japan felt that concerns over the “abduction cases” and calls for complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula would not be properly addressed by the delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill.

One area of concern for the US-Japan alliance is Fukuda’s pre-election promise to delay the debate on constitutional reform, started by his predecessor, for three years. Such a debate could have clarified Japan’s long-term position on collective defense and its roles in multilateral missions, like the current MSDF deployment in the Indian Ocean. Serious examination of this issue, which is needed sooner than later, could demonstrate that Japan is serious about its long-term commitment to responsible global engagement and the US-Japan alliance. The current ad-hoc approach – loose interpretations of the Constitution and special measures laws to address issues – falls short of a clear long-term vision.

Fukuda’s reaffirmation of Japan’s commitment to the US-Japan alliance benefits both Washington and Tokyo. Concerns in Washington over the flux in political leadership, though, do remain, and hopefully, Fukuda’s planned visit in November will calm those fears. Fukuda will need to draw on the experience of his seasoned cabinet to advocate his vision and work with the opposition on many difficult issues. The next several months will prove to be a challenge for Fukuda and the ruling LDP, but also serve as a test to the direction of the US-Japan alliance.

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