Mr Taro Aso, a nationalist, has been appointed as the new Japanese Prime Minister. While no one doubts his abilities, there is little confidence in his ability to get Japan out of the rut it has found itself in for the last few years. According to whom one speaks, Japan is facing two very different futures. One interpretation would have a Japan which is shifting from security consumer to security provider, a willing partner to the US and the international community in combating terrorism and providing aid to struggling parts of the world. Another interpretation, and one that can be heard inside Tokyo itself, is that Japan is in terminal decline, eclipsed by the rise of China, economically uninspired and facing grave social and political problems which prevent it from assuming a more assertive role in the world. Certainly, if one looks at Japan’s domestic political situation, one can see that both of these forces at work. The only question is which of these interpretations will win out over the other.
Politicking at Home
Japanese domestic politics have been in a seemingly-permanent state of chaos for the last few years, and have been marked by fluidity and uncertainty. A far cry from the Koizumi years, when Japan’s leaders were able to implement economic reforms and open up the debate to increased military involvement abroad, today’s Japan looks unsure and hesitant. With three men holding the prime minister’s office in less than two years, the system seems incapable of producing stable rule and has suffered from a split Diet for over fourteen months. With only a week in office under his belt, Taro Aso seemed determined to call a general election sometime in early November in order to break the deadlock. He would, political pundits in Tokyo thought, either win the election handsomely or be the shortest-serving prime minister in Japanese history. Although the plan was not pretty, it seemed to promise a satisfactory way out of the impasse that has paralysed Japanese politics for the past year. Now, there are indications from the prime minister’s office that this plan may have to wait until the worst of the economic crisis has passed by. On 6 October 2008, Aso stated that he would concentrate on the economy rather than think about dissolving the Lower House of the Diet, in a statement to the House of Representatives Budget Committee.
Despite the rather strong standing of Japanese banks, a number of which have snapped up Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley assets over the last weeks, there is still fear that the Japanese economy is headed toward recession for the first time in six years.
In some ways, Taro Aso is a suitable candidate for this particular mess. A colourful nationalist, he won the LDP leadership election on 22 September on a policy of economic stimulus, and has been galvanised by strong support from his coalition ally the New Komeito, which has in turn shored up his standing within his own party and with the public. His stance derives from Keynesian pump-priming, advocating increased government spending to sustain the economy. Despite this strength, there is talk that Aso has swallowed a poison pill in taking office at this point in Japanese history. He faces an opposition-dominated Upper House, whose blocking tactics starved his predecessor of legislative successes. Although he is right to concentrate on the economic crisis, the longer he puts off a general election, the longer the opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), has to attack him in the Diet, weakening his administration in its domestic and foreign policy goals. Broadly speaking, a real concern of policy-makers in Tokyo is that Japan continues to face inwards, fighting domestic battles, while China expands influence across the region, growing militarily more able by the day. In September of this year, the Japanese Ministry of Defense released its annual defence review, calling for increased transparency in Chinese military spending and for awareness of Chinese cyber-attacks. Although its message was toned down compared to the 2007 report, Japanese officials in Tokyo still maintain that China is their chief worry in the region.
This fear of Chinese encroachment is one that finds resonance in the current administration: Aso is well known for his hawkish foreign policy views, particularly when it comes to China. As Abe’s Foreign Minister in 2005, he famously said that China was ‘a neighbour with one billion people equipped with nuclear bombs [which has] expanded its military outlays by double digits for seventeen years in a row, and it is unclear as to what this is being used for.’ Furthermore, one of his foreign policy concepts during this time, the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity, was widely interpreted as a way of constraining China and advancing Japanese interests in Central Asia. He has since then toned down the anti-Chinese rhetoric, but it is clear that Beijing has watched his assumption of power with a mixture of worry and concern. His statement in March 2006 in a well-known Japanese newspaper that Taiwan was a law-abiding country fuelled anger in Beijing, since it implied recognition of Taiwan as an independent state. What is particularly difficult for the Chinese to swallow is the fact that Aso’s predecessor was as well-known for his pro-Chinese views as Aso is known for his anti-Chinese views. Certainly, Aso’s views on history do not help: both South Korea and China have expressed worry over the nature of his views on history. He once praised Japanese colonialism for the benefits that it brought its recipients.
Regarding Japan-Korean relations, Aso is not likely to improve relations since his nationalist leanings preclude him resolving the Dokdo/Takeshima island dispute which caused severe strain between Tokyo and Seoul earlier this year. Assuming Aso is able to win a general election before spring and throw the DPJ out of the Upper House, he will still have his work cut out for him in improving relations with the two Koreas. Certainly, his emphasis on resolving the abduction issue means that he may have painted himself into a corner. His government has already made plans to extend Japanese sanctions on North Korea for another six months beyond the 13 October expiration date, with Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone citing the continuation of the abduction problem, the lack of progress made by Pyongyang on a verification regime and the reactivation of the nuclear facility in Yongbyon. The sanctions, which include a ban on port calls by all North Korean-registered ships and imports from North Korea, have been extended four times since they were first imposed in July 2006. Despite his tough stance, Pyongyang is unlikely to take Aso seriously, since his political future is as of yet undecided. Despite the promise of increased regional tensions, there are those close to Aso who say that he is replacing his nationalism with pragmatism, and will attempt to maintain close economic ties with China and the Republic of Korea, both of which depend on Japanese exports.
Aso’s Achilles’ Heel
One area where Aso is set to act according to his convictions is in Japan’s overseas military commitments. Since 11 September 2001, Japanese forces have been involved in naval refuelling and logistics flights in the Indian Ocean and Iraq, providing support to US missions in both of those areas. Although the public support is weak, Japanese conservatives support these missions for two reasons. Firstly, they strengthen the US-Japan Alliance, a regional stabiliser and hedge against China. Secondly, they expose the military and the public to an increased Japanese role in the international system. There is also talk within Japan’s Ministry of Defense of a general peacekeeping operations law to be considered in the Diet, as well as a possible reconstruction mission in Afghanistan. It is precisely in this area that Aso will face his toughest domestic challenge from the DPJ since the Maritime Interdiction Mission (MIO) is coming to the end of its legal authorisation this January and will need to be renewed in the Diet to be sustained.
This sets Aso up in a weak position in a field in which the Japanese public, still strongly pacifist, is likely to waver in its support for him. There are even some in Tokyo who say that the LDP is unlikely to win the next election, no matter when it is called, which raises the question of how Japanese security policy will fare under the DPJ and its allies.
To What Distant Shores…
Japan is a nation without a strong leader, lacking in a clear direction. There are signs that this may change soon, but this remains to be seen. If the DPJ were to win a general election, there are those who say that internal problems could cause them to disintegrate within the year. The leader of the DPJ, Ichiro Ozawa, is known for being a man of many colours, and is partly responsible for this internal division. He has, at one time or another, belonged to most of the political parties in the Japanese spectrum, including the LDP. He is a supposedly brilliant political strategist which (his critics say) is at the expense of policy substance. In a speech this October, Ozawa emphasised the US-Japan Alliance as the main pillar of his foreign policy, with the UN as the second pillar. Despite this, Asia Forum Japan, a think tank with strong links to the LDP, states that his foreign policy is actually very cautious and unlikely to challenge the current status quo. In other words, he is happy to keep Japan in its rut. With a foreign policy that is held in check by the bureaucracy, any shifts in Japanese security policy would have to be taken by a strong-willed leader. Ozawa’s policies tend to be safe, UN-centred, and link any action of the Japanese Self Defense Forces to a direct UN mandate. Indeed, the DPJ’s main foreign policy achievement to date has been to try to block the LDP from renewing the refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean, showing caution to be the main theme in security policy. All of this raises the issue of whether the political impasse will be resolved soon enough for Japan’s leaders to carry out any sort of security policy at all.
Research Associate International Security Studies, RUSI