Asia
Commentary

Japanese Diplomacy on Hold

in Program

By connor Cislo – A meeting of the Japan-US Security Consultative Committee,
comprised of the Japanese and US foreign and defense ministers, is slated for late
June, ahead of a September visit by the Japanese Prime Minister to the United States.  There are many issues that require
consultation between the two allies, but domestic political circumstances in Japan have
consistently hindered Japanese diplomacy, making any outcome beyond a joint
statement unlikely. 

Much of Japanese leaders’ energy remains focused on relief
and reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the Great Eastern Japan
Earthquake on March 11.  This is
certainly understandable, as the devastation suffered by the Tohoku region
necessitates directed and sustained reconstruction efforts. 

However, parochial political maneuvering continues unabated
among Japanese political leaders.  The
most illustrative of such posturing is the submission of a no-confidence vote
against Prime Minister Naoto Kan
by opposition parties on June 1.  While falling
short of the necessary votes, their action extracted a promise of resignation
at an undeclared date from Prime
Minister Kan.

Moreover, a deep cleavage exists within the DPJ between the
supporters of Kan
and those of political power-broker Ichiro Ozawa and former Prime Minister
Yukio Hatoyama, which remains deep and irreparable.  Though Ozawa/Hatoyama supporters largely
voted against the no-confidence measure in the end, the political noise leading
up to the vote demonstrated Kan’s
lack of control over his party.  After the
no-confidence measure Kan is weaker than ever,
and with the opposition pushing for Kan to
resign by the end of June the face of future leadership in Japan is
exceptionally unclear.

The acrimony of Japanese politics is hardly new, as
demonstrated by the relatively short terms of the previous four prime
ministers.  The quick rotation of
political leadership has led to shifting foreign policy priorities, most
notably during the tenure of Yukio Hatoyama, and their adverse effects on
Japanese diplomacy.  In the meantime, Russia and China
have grown increasingly assertive in challenging Japan,
dialogue with the United
States has stalled, and discussions on
important issues, such as Japanese participation in the Trans-Pacific
Partnership, have been left unresolved. 
The fast turnover of Japanese leaders makes sustained negotiations
difficult.  Foreign diplomats are
reluctant to fully engage for fear that their Japanese partners will change
within the year.

The subjugation of foreign policy to domestic politics is also
not a new phenomenon.  In the case of
US-Japan relations, however, diplomacy has languished at precisely a time when
creativity and vitality are needed.  For
example, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell
has stated, “I think it’s extraordinarily important for the United States and Japan
to take steps to ease the burden on the people of Okinawa
– both in terms of operations and in terms of bases.”[1]  At the same time he asserts the US and Japan
intend to proceed according to the 2006 Joint Declaration and the May 28 Joint
Declaration, which do not meet the demands of the Okinawan populace regarding
US military basing.  Contradictions in
alliance management such as this are not easily resolved, and an acceptable
solution will require a sustained investment of political will.  Though basing issues are most publicized, the
alliance faces several challenges of even greater magnitude, including
addressing the myriad problems posed by North
Korea and adapting to China’s evolving regional role.  As long as Japan remains preoccupied with
domestic politics, it is unlikely that decision makers in either country will
be able to craft long-term solutions to these problems.

A resolution of the impasse may come in the form of a grand
coalition within the Japanese Diet.  DPJ
officials are trying to usher Kan
out the door in order to make way for a leader more palatable to the LDP and
New Komeito.  If such a coalition were to
come about, stalled bills in the opposition-controlled House of Councillors
could proceed and Japan
could chart a more confident foreign policy. 
There is precious little time to achieve such consensus before the
Consultative Committee meeting, however, and US diplomats will be hesitant to
enter serious negotiations over major issues if they don’t know who their
partners will be in the next couple of months.

The window for productive dialogue is closing rapidly before
a prolonged hiatus.  Between political
infighting in Japan and US
diplomatic energy focused elsewhere, any tangible outcome is unlikely.  The alliance will have to weather this
period, and it will remain to future leaders to attempt to craft creative
solutions to these long-standing problems.

 


[1] http://www.state.gov/p/eap/rls/rm/2011/05/164070.htm

Photo Credit: Dept. of State

 

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