Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Asō makes a pun

Speaking before the Upper House Budget Committee on Monday, Prime Minister Asō Tarō reached a new low for an LDP leader attacking the opposition DPJ.

Asō was addressing the debate regarding the DPJ's plans to finance new spending by cutting wasteful spending and tapping the so-called "buried treasure" of Kasumigaseki, surpluses in the government's numerous special account budgets. Calling upon the DPJ to be more specific about the sources for the 20.5 trillion yen in spending proposals in its manifesto, Asō then said the following:
"The DPJ is flying the flag of regime change, but if there is regime change, there will probably be a recession."

It seems that Asō, known for stumbling over words (like this recent gaffe), was trying to make a pun, connecting 政権交代 (seiken kōtai) to 景気後退 (keiki kōtai). Nicely played, Mr. Asō.

Except that I can think of at least two things wrong with this critique. First, it seems that Asō has forgotten that Japan is already in a recession. Perhaps someone could show him the latest labor survey released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which found that the unemployment rate rose to 5.2% in May. Naturally Asō would wave off this complaint by repeating the refrain about the "once in a century economic crisis originating in America," but whatever the source, Asō is hardly in a position to be talking about recessions to come, not with Japan mired in a rather severe one under his own government.

Second, the causal logic in this statement is dubious. How exactly will the DPJ cause a recession by not offering a clear account for how it intends to pay for its programs? Is Asō is suggesting that LDP profligacy caused past recessions? How exactly will the DPJ's failure to outline in precise detail how it will pay for its programs trigger a recession? Or is Asō speaking in a general sense, that the DPJ is so clearly maladroit at governing that it will drag Japan done? If so, one need only ask about Asō's own party, or his own government, for that matter, which just loosened restraints on public spending. How is carefree spending under the LDP the mark of a "responsible party" but carefree spending under the DPJ the harbinger of recession?

In short, there is very little that the LDP can ask about the DPJ without having the DPJ turn around and ask the same question about the LDP.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Circling the drain

The dissolution of the House of Representatives, Prime Minister Asō Tarō tells us, is not far off.

It cannot come soon enough. Each day brings more news of Asō's loosening grasp on his own party. Yomiuri reports that from Monday, the effort to replace the prime minister will take on a new urgency. The movement to move up the LDP presidential election is growing apace, becoming the latest cause of the LDP's reformists, who seem to think that one final change of leadership will be able to make up for three years of backsliding on reform. In addition to Yamamoto Taku, the lower house member circulating a petition on the election, Takebe Tsutomu, onetime Koizumi lieutenant, is also calling for an early party election, suggesting that Koike Yuriko or Masuzoe Yoichi would make fine choices for a new party leader and prime minister. Nakagawa Hidenao has suggested that if Asō does the "honorable" thing and resigns, LDP rule can continue. Tanahashi Yasufumi, who as a forty-one-year-old third-term Diet member became a cabinet minister holding special portfolios for science and technology and food safety under Koizumi, has openly called for the prime minister's resignation.

It is difficult to see what this campaign against Asō will accomplish other than accelerating the LDP's decline and perhaps forcing Asō into accelerating the lower house dissolution and a general election. The prime minister, after all, still has a nuclear option in the form of the right of dissolution, and to use it would deal a mortal blow to efforts to unseat him. If it would be farcical to replace Asō now, on the eve of a dissolution, it would be even more insulting to the intelligence of the Japanese public to replace Asō once the clock started ticking from the dissolution to a general election. To change leaders now would be an insult, sending a simple message to the public: pay no attention to the mishaps of the three LDP leaders who followed Koizumi and look to the bright future under (insert name of flashy new leader here).

At this point it would be no less insulting for Asō to reshuffle the LDP leadership to change the faces who will be seen on the campaign trail along with the prime minister. But along with his power over the timing of the general election the power to pick his cabinet and party leaders is just about all that Asō has left, and so it seems possible that he will use this last remaining tool to shake up the LDP. Yamamoto Ichita alludes to rumors that the PM might name Masuzoe chief cabinet secretary — in other words, giving Masuzoe responsibility for the election campaign, which would ensure that one of the few remaining popular LDP members would go before the public across the country.

Nevertheless, it is getting difficult to think of new metaphors and similes to illustrate just how desperate the LDP's situation is as June comes to a close. It is difficult to see a pathway to victory for the LDP barring some enormous scandal that implicates much of the DPJ — and even then, the election would presumably be closely contested. For all their good intentions, the reformists appear to have ensured that the LDP will be stuck with Asō, who now, thanks to their campaign to remove him, looks largely powerless as prime minister and party leader.

But not wholly powerless, as it looks like he will exercise his ultimate power. Asō has met with LDP and Komeitō leaders in recent days, and Sankei suggests that an early August election is most likely. According to Oshima Tadamori, the LDP's kokutai chairman, Asō has a final choice to make: whether to dissolve the Diet before he goes to Italy for the G8 summit on July 8 (and before the Tokyo assembly election on July 12) or whether to wait until after the Tokyo election. The choice will make little difference for the outcome – although Asō may enjoy Italy more if he waits until after his return to dissolve the Diet and call an election.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The vision thing

On Tuesday the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy (CEFP) released the 2009 Basic Plan for Economic and Fiscal Reform (known colloquially as the honebuto), available here along with other documents from the Tuesday meeting.

The plan is controversial because the Asō government appears to have sidestepped an existing agreement — originating in the 2006 honebuto — that social security spending would be capped at 220 billion yen, a figure that the general account budget is rapidly nearing. Social security spending is by far the largest portion of the budget and a major contributor to the government's deficits, hardly surprising given Japan's demographics. Needless to say, central to the fiscal crisis of the Japanese state is figuring out how to bear the burden of providing for Japan's elderly without bankrupting the state or wrecking the economy. At the same time, the LDP has struggled to undo the damage done to the party by the Abe government's mishandling of the 2007 pensions scandal — and so, as with many other recent government and LDP documents, the 2009 honebuto stresses economic security alongside economic vitality as a goal of reform. Years of polling show that the state of social security is the Japanese public's top policy priority. The LDP cannot afford to look weak on social security as it did in 2007 if it is to have the slightest chance of winning this year's general election.

How did the Asō government resolve this tension? It punted, withdrawing the clause limiting social security spending to 220 billion yen but insisting that the government still views solving the fiscal crisis as a top medium- and long-term priority priority for the Japanese state. The new plan, for example, retains a provision that calls for annual three percent cuts in public works spending. The government will also continue to economize in other areas (which will undoubtedly undermine the effort by LDP conservatives to ratchet up Japan's defense spending).

This single episode says much about the decay of LDP rule.

Press coverage of the Asō government's decision has focused on the role played by members of the LDP's education, and health and welfare policy tribes (zoku) in pressuring the government to abandon the social security ceiling and other spending limits. "A free for all for zoku," an anonymous source told Sankei. Mainichi noted the role played by the zoku and added that Prime Minister Asō was missing in action in this debate. Naturally both of these factors are important in explaining why the Asō government softened its approach to the fiscal restraint. But it is useful to step back from the interplay of personalities: this episode shows the irreconciliable forces tugging at Asō and the LDP more generally. Asō, like Fukuda before him, is struggling to weave his way between economic reformists and traditionalists, between fiscal hawks and spendthrifts, between budget cutters and tax hikers. While at various points Asō has attempted to distance himself from Koizumi and "neo-liberal" reformism, he has stopped short of committing to an approach that is anything more than a balancing act between the competing pressures present within the LDP. The LDP cannot make up its mind what kind of party it wants to be — and unfortunately for Japan, that schizophrenic party has an outsized role in shaping government policy.

Notice that this failure of vision on the part of the LDP has nothing to do with the bureaucracy, the favorite scapegoat of the structural reformers. If the LDP had a vision for governing — or if ruling politicians could impose a vision on the LDP — the bureaucracy would not have nearly as many opportunities for mischief and malfeasance.

In other words, just as the DPJ intensifies its plans for a possible power transition, the LDP has provided an excellent demonstration of how not to govern.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The DPJ faces the bureaucracy

With the DPJ's prospects on the rise and the LDP mired in what may be terminal disarray, the DPJ is receiving greater scrutiny when it comes to how the party will govern should it take power.

That, after all, is what this election is about: if seiken kotai [regime change], the DPJ's longtime mantra is to have any meaning, the DPJ must be prepared to change how Japan is governed. A change of government must be more than a change of the name of the party wielding Japan's shambolic administrative machinery.

To this end, the DPJ's Kan Naoto opted for an observation tour in Britain. Kan was in Britain for six days, where he met with officials from government and opposition parties to discuss power transitions and relations between politicians and bureaucrats. (Although if the DPJ is going to look to Britain for lessons, can someone please send a box set of Yes Minister to Mr. Kan and company?)

It is revealing that Kan went to Britain because in effect the DPJ hopes to transform Japan's "Un-Westminster" system into a proper Westminster system, with power concentrated in the cabinet at the expense of the governing party and bureaucracy. The vaunted administrative reforms implemented under Prime Ministers Hashimoto and Koizumi served more to strengthen the Kantei as a pillar competing with the LDP and the bureaucracy in the policymaking process than to turn the cabinet and the prime minister's office into a proper Westminster-style executive. The DPJ's hope — and its primary mission — is to concentrate power in the cabinet, declawing its own policymaking organs and forcing the bureaucracy to bend to the will of the duly elected government. Because the DPJ's policymaking organs are underdeveloped compared to the LDP's Policy Research Council, policy zoku, and other mechanisms for LDP backbenchers to intervene in the policymaking process, to effect regime change a DPJ-led government will obviously be forced to confront the bureaucracy. (Although the DPJ has thought ahead about how to prevent its policymaking council from becoming a power base independent of the government: the DPJ plans to have its head serve concurrently as chief cabinet secretary. Naturally the need for coalition partners could complicate this effort considerably.)

The DPJ has plenty of ideas for confronting the bureaucracy, many of which are spelled out by Kan in detail in the July issue of Chūō Kōron. But the sum of these ideas is a scheme to destroy the customary practices that have given the bureaucracy its power, most notably the customs of allowing the bureaucracy to wield the power of personnel appointment delegated to the cabinet and respecting the decisions reached in the conference of administrative vice ministers. Perhaps it would be easier to change Japan's administration if the bureaucracy's powers were written into law. Changing customs can be more challenging, entailing a protracted war of words between the DPJ and the bureaucracy played out in the media. The bureaucracy's goal is akin to the LDP's goal: create a public image of the DPJ as an irresponsible party incapable of acting on behalf of the Japanese people. The media will be the primary arena for the battle between the bureaucracy and a DPJ-led government, but there will be other tools at the bureaucracy's disposal. Bureaucrats may be able to use back channel connections to former bureaucrats in the DPJ in an attempt to sow dissent within the DPJ. Bureaucrats could leak information to the LDP in opposition to undermine or embarrass the government. We should expect that the bureaucracy will do whatever necessary to defend its prerogatives.

The war has already started. Ichide Michio, administrative vice minister for agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, questioned the DPJ's plans for income support for agricultural households as "unrealistic" at a press conference, a clear case of political intervention by a supposedly politically neutral public official. Hatoyama Yukio responded to Ichide's remarks by suggesting that in Britain "he would be sacked." Sasayama Tatsuo shows that Ichide was responding to leading questions from reporters, a mitigating circumstance certainly, but this episode shows what we should expect from the media should the DPJ take power — and more importantly, in the months leading up to the general election.

Admittedly I should not be so quick to speak of the "media" and the "bureaucracy" as monolithic entities. Indeed, success or failure for the DPJ will depend on the extent to which the DPJ is able to sow dissent among bureaucrats, to find and support officials sympathetic to the party's plans. But the point remains that the central task for a DPJ-led government will be engineering a dramatic shift in how power is executed in the policymaking process, a shift conceived by Kan as from "bureaucratic cabinet/centralized government" to "parliamentary cabinet/decentralized government" (the centralization dimension referring to the relationship between the center and the periphery in Japan as a whole).

What the DPJ should not do is compare this task to the two previous great reforms, the Meiji-era reforms and the Occupation-era reforms. The DPJ is simply incapable of delivering reform on that scale, not because it is the DPJ but because it is a party in a functioning parliamentary system. Consider the circumstances during which the great reforms occurred. The first followed an internal, top-down revolution that enabled the new ruling elites to redraw Japanese institutions as they saw fit. The second set of reforms followed catastrophic defeat and was the product of an external, top-down revolution. In both cases there was a blank slate, or at least as blank a slate as possible in human affairs. Reform was largely extra-parliamentary — and as a result, opposition to reform was extra-parliamentary, isolated from power and easily repressed or ignored.

Needless to say, the DPJ will not enjoy the same freedom. It will face considerable legitimate opposition, within the Diet from an LDP that will likely find its voice in opposition and even from members of the coalition government that will likely emerge from the government (even if the DPJ wins a simple majority due to the need to keep its upper house partners involved). It will face opposition from prefectural governors, mayors, prefectural and local assembly members, NPOs, industry groups, and unions. Sooner or later it will face opposition from a considerable portion of the public. And while the bureaucracy may not be elected, its members are certainly participants in the political process. Accordingly, the less grandiose the DPJ is regarding what it hopes to achieve through administrative reform, the less vituperative the party is in its rhetoric regarding the bureaucracy, the more effective the DPJ will be should it take power.

I applaud Kan's efforts to move the DPJ away from harsh, anti-bureaucracy rhetoric that will make it more difficult to work with the bureaucracy. At a press conference last week Kan stressed that the DPJ is not against the bureaucracy, that it recognizes that it needs to make use of the experience and intelligence of Japan's bureaucrats. The DPJ, he said, stands for "post-bureaucratic politics, not anti-bureaucratic politics." Nakagawa Hidenao, Schmittian in his desire for political enemies, dubbed Kan's remarks as heretical to the cause of administrative reform, a sign that the DPJ does not have the stomach to tackle the challenge. But Nakagawa has it precisely wrong. The existence of a strong, entrenched bureaucracy is a fact of life for any Japanese government. Demonizing the bureaucracy accomplishes nothing. As a party with no experience in governing the DPJ will be especially dependent on the bureaucracy.

Does that mean that there is no hope for administrative reform? Hardly. In looking to unify cabinet and party, the DPJ has sought to learn from the LDP's mistakes: bureaucratic rule has been harmful precisely because the LDP did little to prevent collusion between backbenchers and bureaucrats, which prevented the government from speaking with a single voice and enabled backbenchers to misappropriate enormous sums of public funds. A DPJ victory would be a positive development for precisely this reason, as it would represent an opportunity to create a system in which elected representatives serving as prime minister and cabinet ministers could determine national priorities and direct the administrative machinery accordingly, confident that their work would not be undermined by backbenchers following their own agendas. The task, in short, is to establish a clear division of labor between politicians and bureaucrats, making politicians accountable for setting national priorities and drafting legislation, and making the bureaucracy responsible for implementing the public's will as embodied in legislation.

LDP rule has effectively erased this line. The challenge for a DPJ-led government will be to restore it.

Monday, June 22, 2009

From crisis to crisis

For a government that has at various times tried to distinguish itself as putting policy before politics, the Asō government now closely resembles an immunocompromised patient desperately trying to fend off opportunistic infections, with the infections being political disorder within the LDP. It bears noting that the DPJ has played little or no role in the terminal crisis of the Asō government — indeed, the DPJ nearly resuciated the government by allowing Ozawa Ichirō to stay on as long as he did. But now the DPJ needs to do little more than sit back and let the LDP destroy itself and can in fact help the process along by speedily voting on the government's agenda in the upper house to force the question of the timing of the general election.

In the meantime, the latest crisis facing the prime minister is whether the LDP should move up the date of the LDP presidential election scheduled for September, which would give Asō's opponents a chance to replace him.

Yamamoto Taku, an LDP lower house member, has received eighty-two signatures on his petition calling for rescheduling the party election, and another twenty-six LDP members have voiced their agreement orally. As with each of these crises (or "infections"), senior government and party officials have given their opinion on the matter. Kawamura Takeo, the chief cabinet secretary, rejected the idea outright and warned that it would undermine the government and the LDP. Abe Shinzō, now something of an expert on the impact of cascading crises within the LDP, came to the prime minister's defense too, suggesting that if the LDP were to change leaders again, the public would (rightly, I think) receive it as an act of deception on the part of the LDP. Masuzoe Yoichi, the independent-minded health, welfare, and labor minister, refused to say no to an early leadership election, saying that it is the party's decision to make (perhaps a sign of Masuzoe's intentions?).

It is unlikely that this debate will change the prime minister's mind one way or another, but with each passing day, with each broadside, the LDP slides deeper into crisis. Each attempt by a senior party leader to extract the party from the morass reinforces the image of a party characterized by deep and irresolvable schisms — and a prime minister once again in need of reading material to take his mind off his troubles. (Although perhaps he's not reading for distraction after all: one of his recent purchases is a book about his grandfather's time in office, purchased along with his usual diet of conservative tracts.)

In all likelihood Asō Tarō will survive to lead the LDP into the general election; the movement to overthrow will likely do little more than cripple the LDP, reinforcing the image of a governing party incapable of governing itself, let alone Japan.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Protesting too much?

In a short span of time, Prime Minister Asō Tarō, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kawamura Takeo, and LDP Secretary-General Hosoda Hiroyuki rejected the attempt by Asō's opponents to link the LDP's performance in the July 12 Tokyo assembly election to Asō's future as LDP leader.

At a press conference Wednesday, Kawamura echoed Hosoda in insisting that there is no connection whatsoever between the LDP's performance in local elections and the prime minister's future as party leader: "The Tokyo assembly election is the Tokyo assembly election."

Speaking with the press Wednesday, Asō stated that regional elections and the general elections are completely distinct and therefore there should be no talk of his taking responsibility via resignation should the party perform poorly in Tokyo.

Of course, it is hard to square this position with the prime minister's decision to visit with all of the LDP's candidates for the Tokyo assembly, something that Asō's allies and opponents have noticed. Undoubtedly it will take more than this trio asserting that there is no link between the two elections to dispel this scheme for how Asō can be edged out with minimal confrontation within the party. This in turn raises the possibility that Asō will follow Koga Makoto and opt for a 12 July double election.

Koike versus the "soft liners"

On Tuesday, Koike Yuriko, former defense minister and aspirant to the LDP presidency, announced her resignation as chair of the LDP's special committee on base countermeasures.

She told the media that her resignation was intended as a protest against the decision to soften the language on preemption in the LDP Policy Research Council's defense division in the recommendations for this year's National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) sent to Prime Minister Asō Tarō this month. She sees the longstanding doctrine of "nonaggressive defense" as injurious to the national defense, unacceptably tying the government's hands in addressing threats to Japanese national security.

Koike has a point: if Japan is to acquire the capabilities to strike at "enemy bases," it might as well be straightforward about the circumstances in which it intends to use said capabilities. What is the deterrent value, after all, of capabilities that Japan may or may not use if faced with an imminent missile launch?

This feud may be indicative of what I thought the response to the remarks (mentioned here) by Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to Japan, would be among LDP members. While it is unclear at what point the language was softened to rule out preemptive strikes even while calling for capabilities to strike enemy bases, Ambassador Cui's remarks surely reinforced concerns by LDP members like Yamasaki Taku that Japan must be careful about sending the wrong signals abroad — while reinforcing the resolve of hawks like Koike who unabashedly want Japan to be ready and able to carry out preemptive strikes.

Naturally there is also the question of Koike hopes to achieve by resigning her post in this fashion. She has reinserted herself into the discussion of a hot-button issue just as the Asō government has entered into what might be its endgame. She has taken a hardline position on an issue of prime importance to Asō's conservative backers, perhaps in hope of prying their support away should the prime minister be forced out before an election. Of course, I am not questioning the sincerity of her beliefs — just the timing and form of her protest.

It's a small step, but it could be an important one. If Asō does not survive long enough to lead the LDP into the general election, the conservatives might reason that backing Koike is a way to ensure that their approach to North Korea and national security generally enjoy top priority in the LDP's election campaign — while allowing Koike to take the fall should the LDP lose disastrously in the general election. (Of course, I remain skeptical that the prime minister's critics will be able to force him out before a general election.)

Meanwhile, I am curious about the political salience of the debate over preemption in the LDP. Curiously, I have yet to see a single poll that asked respondents for their opinion on the idea of preemptive strikes and the acquisition of capabilities in order to carry out attacks on North Korean bases. I suspect that there's little interest in the issue as a priority, especially if respondents were informed that acquiring new capabilities would entail greater defense spending, but I am keen to see some data on this question. If a poll has asked this question and I've missed it, do send it my way. Otherwise, the question remains: why no polling on preemption?

There is another question in the preemption debate that advocates like Koike have not addressed forthrightly. Can Japan actually preempt a possible North Korean attack? Jiji calls attention to a recent report by the International Crisis Group that suggests that North Korea has an estimated 320 Rodong intermediate range ballistic missiles on mobile launchers directed at Japan, exceeding the previous estimate of 200. Would Japan be able to find these missiles, let alone destroy them? Have Koike and other hawks made an honest assessment of what capabilities Japan will realistically need to possess in order to carry out this mission? If Japan is to have a proper debate about preemption versus deterrence, the advocates of preemption ought to be honest about what the JSDF would need to possess — and what such an arms program would cost.

For now, all I see is posturing from politicians like Koike about how Japan lacks a "true national defense."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A reply to Randy Waterhouse on balancing

Randy Waterhouse graciously addressed some points I raised in response to his discussion of Japanese balancing behavior, and I would like to respond in turn.

Although before I do, I must add that I like the Stephensonian moniker.

1 and 2) I think what we're dealing with here is the difference between balancing as a description of behavior intended to counter or neutralize visible threats to a state's security and balancing as the process by which the structure of international system changes. Japan may be engaged in the former in regard to North Korea and the latter in regard to China. There may be some overlap, but perhaps not as much as meets the eye. (Although any legal or constitutional changes that grow out of the North Korean threat would undoubtedly influence balancing against China.) For example, Japan has little reason to ramp up military spending to neutralize the threat posed by North Korea. The debate is over whether passive or deterrent defense is adequate to meet the threat posed by North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, or whether Japan needs to consider preemptive defense. Arguably meeting the North Korea challenge does not require all-out mobilization, a comprehensive change in how Japan mobilizes national resources in response to external threats. The debate over how to deal with the North Korean threat is obviously connected with the debate over how to deal with a rising China, but the question is how these two debates are connected.

One connection is simply that Japanese hawks are not making clear distinctions between North Korea and China when making their case. I figured that Waterhouse and I agree on the importance of China for Japanese balancing behavior over the long term, but my point was that China may play a more prominent role in Japanese debates about balancing in the near term than I read his post as arguing. After all, Waterhouse wrote of "the lack of bold, provocative military signals from China of late," which may be true in an objective sense, but from the perspective of Japanese elites arguing for balancing behavior of one form or another, China has done plenty to merit more balancing on Japan's part, whether by spending more on its military or by sending the PLA Navy to waters ever further from China (and by acting with greater assertiveness closer to China). Arguments about China may carry less weight than arguments rooted in meeting the North Korean threat, but some elites are making arguments about the China threat. It may not be easy to separate the two: national security hawks are trying to create a climate of uncertainty in order to sell their policies, and they are willing to use any external threat at hand to make their case. North Korea may provide a particular perturbation — but the sensitivity of elites and public to a perturbation may have as much to do with worrying signals from China as with North Korean behavior.

3) Just to build on a point here, there are a number of different ways to think about post-cold war changes to the US-Japan alliance. External balancing against a long-term threat may be the most likely explanation, but there are other plausible explanations, whether domestic politics or a structural explanation rooted less in preparations for a rising China than in the impact of unipolarity of the US alliances that were the legacy of the cold war. It is entirely possible that we may be entering a period in which Japan chafes at a security policy overly centered on the alliance and instead opts for Samuels's "Goldilocks consensus," a grand strategy that features a more even mix of external and internal balancing, maximizing Japan's options in a changing regional security environment. (Of course, if US power declines markedly relative to China's, structural realism would presumably predict greater incentives for external balancing by both the US and Japan and more internal balancing by Japan to compensate for US relative decline.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Time for a mercy killing

After a brief period of buoyancy, the bottom has finally fallen out of the Asō government.

In addition to the drops below twenty percent approval in the Mainichi and Kyodo polls, the government's approval rating dropped 8.7% to 17.5% in the Sankei poll, with its disapproval rating rising ten points to 70.6%, a poll in which respondents favored the DPJ over the LDP by nearly twenty points and in which nearly fifty percent of respondents said they would vote for the DPJ in proportional representation voting in the forthcoming general election.

As has often been the case in recent years, poor public opinion polls tend to trigger (or exacerbate) snowball effects within the LDP. Party elders like Mori Yoshirō go public with their concerns about the viability of the government and begin talking about ways to fix the government, usually by discussing a cabinet reshuffle. Accordingly, Machimura faction leaders, including Mori, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura Nobutaka met Tuesday evening to "exchange opinions" on a cabinet reshuffle, a reshuffle that if it were to occur would surely rank as one of the most meaningless cabinet reshuffles ever. It is unclear to me that reshuffles are an effective way to reverse a decline in support for a government, especially for recent LDP governments. After all, the public's problems with recent governments have had little to do with the cabinet lineups. Rather, the LDP has so few tools at its disposal to deal with public disapproval that LDP members look to the cabinet reshuffle out of a desire to "do something" about public discontent. To his credit, Prime Minister Asō has given no sign that he is considering a reshuffle.

Meanwhile, party reformists and wakate giin rusih to distance themselves from the unpopular prime minister, while intensifying calls for accelerating the party's presidential election scheduled for September so that dissatisfied LDP members could replace Asō Tarō with someone better able to lead the party in a general election. Of course, it is not entirely who could save the LDP at this point — or who wants a chance to save the LDP at this point. Hosoda Hiroyuki, the LDP secretary-general, has dismissed the idea of moving up the party election, but the prime minister's opponents continue to scheme for a way to dump Asō. The latest idea is to tie the prime minister's future to the LDP's performance in next month's Tokyo assembly election. An unnamed member of the LDP executive has stated that if the LDP does not remain the assembly's largest party, Asō should step down. Hosoda has also rejected this idea, but there is little question that the 12 July Tokyo election is taking on considerable importance for both the LDP and Komeitō as a test of the coalition's ability to win urban electoral districts that were critical to its 2005 landslide, especially following the LDP's losing streak in recent municipal elections.

Interestingly, Koga Makoto suggested this week that he supports a July 12 general election, which I suppose would be one way to avoid the turmoil that would follow a disastrous performance in the Tokyo elections. Komeitō is of course opposed to this idea, but this is a good reminder that Asō still has the trump card in the battle with his own party, the prime minister's right to dissolve parliament and call an election.

Kato Koichi said Tuesday that an early election would be suicidal, but at this point I have to wonder whether it wouldn't be a mercy killing. While the Asō government claims to have important business to attend to, at this point nothing is more important than holding an election, which will hopefully result in a government with greater legitimacy and a greater ability to act on policy than the current coalition government. And while Kato says an early election would be suicide, it is unlikely that an election at term's end will be any less fatal to the Asō government and the LDP-Komeitō coalition government more generally. The interesting question now is whether the general election will be fatal to the LDP itself.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Return to Japan

I'll be leaving shortly for Japan. Regular blogging will resume soon.

These are the hollow men

"Shape without form, shade without colour,/Paralysed force, gesture without motion" — T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

The belabored departure of Hatoyama Kunio — captured well with a quote from a more contemporary poet at Shisaku — and now the third straight defeat of an LDP candidate in a prominent mayoral election suggest that what little remained of the LDP's 2005 mandate is in tatters. Kumagai Toshihito, the thirty-one-year-old DPJ-backed candidate, won the Chiba City mayoral election Sunday, making him Japan's youngest mayor. Kawamura Takeo, the chief cabinet secretary, dismissed the election as having no influence on national politics, which may be true in a technical sense, but the DPJ's third straight mayoral campaign victory reinforces the image that the DPJ has recovered from the Ozawa scandal and that the LDP is in disarray and hemorrhaging electoral support.

Public opinion polls, after briefly recording an uptick in the LDP's fortunes, once again show that the public has grown weary of the Asō government and the LDP-Komeitō coalition. In a Mainichi poll conducted over the weekend, the cabinet's approval rating fell five points to 19%. When asked which party they want to win in this year's general election, respondents overwhelmingly favored the DPJ, 53% to 27%. And Hatoyama Yukio, while trailing "none of the above," which received 46% support, is the favored candidate for prime minister for 32% of respondents compared to Asō's 15%: the prime minister's support fell six points since last month.

The LDP is once again in full-blown panic mode — hence the Eliot quote above. As the LDP scrambles to respond to its latest setbacks while simultaneously preparing for a general election, "paralysed force" strikes me as a particularly apt description of the Asō LDP. Anti-Asō murmurings from within the LDP are growing louder, prompted by his mishandling of the Japan Post debate and Hatoyama's dismissal. (In the Mainichi poll, only 22% of respondents approved the government's dismissal of Hatoyama.) But in all the scrambling and the maneuvering against Asō, it is unclear how the LDP can present itself to the public in the months so to reverse the shift towards the DPJ. The LDP is struggling once again for the same reasons it has struggled throughout the four years since the last general election. As MTC argued in the post linked to above, the LDP has spent four years retreating from the Koizumi platform that helped the ruling coalition secure a record supermajority, with the result that the party's image is more muddled than usual. The fight over the reappointment of Nishikawa Yoshifumi as head of Japan Post is the natural consequence of the creation of a Koizumian reformist remnant within the LDP that has been marginalized within the party but retains considerable clout through its association with Koizumi, their ties with the media, and (for now) their numbers among the LDP's backbenchers. In forcing the prime minister to dismiss Hatoyama, the reformists scored a rare victory, but on the whole they have been in retreat for at least three years.

But it is not entirely clear what the reformists and the "old guard" are fighting over. Of course on paper they have two different visions for how the LDP should govern — although the old guard seems to put less on paper than the reformists, many of them being prolific bloggers and authors, wannabe public intellectuals of one sort or another. Nakagawa Hidenao, much like Koizumi, has no shortage of slogans about how to change Japan, but it is sometimes difficult to see how his slogans ("from government to the people," etc.) would translate into policies. For all the vitriol directed at the old LDP by Koizumi, Nakagawa, and others, the differences are less on policy and more on political style and tactics, the timing of reform, and the government's priorities. Few, after all, oppose "reform" outrightly. Indeed, there is no shortage of ideas in all issue areas and across the political spectrum. The problem is that plans and schemes are rarely matched by realistic approaches to implementation. To take one example, postal privatization obviously didn't end with the passage of legislation; it is a complicated process that has required more than sloganeering. Would the radical decentralization plans proposed by the leaders of both the LDP and the DPJ be any less tortuous in their implementation?

Structural reform may be necessary, but its advocates would do well to focus more on building stable, enduring coalition that can manage both the passage and the implementation of reforms than on devising clever slogans to rally support for their ideas while antagonizing other political actors. As Koizumi found, unrelenting war against the "opposition forces" was easier said than done: even he had to compromise with rivals within the LDP, and, more significantly, the finance ministry.

The result is that the LDP may be more amorphous than ever, saddled with Koizumi's legacy, torn between partisans of the Koizumi way and conservatives who want the minimal amount of change necessary to stay in power, and powerless to resolve these internal conflicts and consequently to make progress tackling the problems facing Japan. Yamamoto Ichita, one of the LDP's most outspoken reformists, has voiced his support for Asō, but it is half-hearted support, in that he supports Asō's leading the LDP into the general election because he thinks it would hurt the LDP to change leaders yet again. And it is telling that when he lists the government's accomplishments, he does not even attempt to spin Asō as a reformist, citing instead the economic stimulus packages and his foreign policy initiatives.

In other words, it is remarkable how little the LDP has to offer voters this year. Despite having the ultimate trump card in the form of the lower house supermajority, which ensured that it could overrule the DPJ-controlled upper house at will, the LDP and Komeitō have done remarkably little with their authority over the past three years. Work is proceeding on the party's manifesto, which promises to focus on the "livelihood of the people." (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?) But by following the DPJ in promising to listen to the economic insecurities of the public, doesn't the LDP raise the question of what it has been doing to ease economic insecurity since the 2005 election and before? And by questioning the DPJ's ability to govern, won't the LDP invite questions about its own ability to govern? The narrative of this year's election campaign appears to favor the DPJ, as the public may once again be asking what the LDP has done with its mandate, instead of asking whether the DPJ will be able to deliver on its promises if given a mandate.

In short, LDP rule appears set to end in cacaphonous turmoil, as the party's warring schools squabble over whether the party is for "reform," "public wellbeing," or, like the DPJ, some combination of the two. And it seems that delaying the general election will only ensure that the combatants have more time to battle for the soul of the party, ensuring electoral defeat.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Is Japan balancing?

"Randy Waterhouse," the nom de blog of a contributor to the political science group blog Duck of Minerva, looks to Japan in a discussion of when and why states balance against other states.

As I wrote in April, the lack of Japanese balancing behavior is the great puzzle in Japanese security policy since the end of the cold war. Waterhouse considers the possibility that North Korea — as opposed to China — is leading Japan to pursue a balancing strategy. He considers threatening signals from North Korea as a source of "perturbations" (borrowing a concept from Kingdon's Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies) that will trigger Japanese balancing behavior against North Korea.

There are a few problems with this argument. First, while the DPRK is in a sense be "revisionist" in that it wholly rejects the prevailing international order, as a small, impoverished, isolated country dependent on its neighbors to feed its people and having little more than its nuclear weapons, its missiles, and its wits to depend on for survival it hardly constitutes a revisionist power in the sense outlined by Robert Gilpin. North Korea may be revisionist in rhetoric, but do states balance against rhetoric or reach? The idea — implied but not explicitly stated by Waterhouse — is that Japanese conservatives can balance against the state that may one day become a revisionist power if it is not one already (see Alastair Iain Johnston's consideration of this question here) by using the DPRK as a stand-in for China. Policy decisions made to cope with North Korea could serve as a "down payment" on a balancing strategy against China. Or not: as Waterhouse notes, there is a difference between reactionary balancing and long-term balancing. And while Waterhouse argues that elites interested in a more robust security posture are treating North Korea's recent behavior as a catalyst, certain conservatives make no secret of their desire to balance against China. A recent Sankei editorial on the LDP subcommittee's draft NDPG points to China's rise to second place in the SIPRI index of defense spending to make the case for reversing cuts in Japan's defense spending, a call echoed in an op-ed by Sassa Atsuyuki, the first head of the Cabinet's national security office, who calls for an increase in defense spending to 1.5% of GDP (but does not mention China). Japan's desire to purchase the F-22 is explicitly connected to a desire to balance against Chinese airpower. Despite the positive developments in the Sino-Japanese relationship, the China threat thesis is alive and well among the Japanese elites arguing for a more robust security policy. North Korea's actions may help make the case for balancing, but that does not mean that elites using Chinese behavior too.

There is a bigger question in this debate, namely how do we know when a state is balancing? What mix of policies would constitute a Japanese balancing strategy? Waterhouse essentially assumes that any change to the status quo in Japanese security policy would constitute balancing. But there has been plenty of change in Japanese security policy in the past twenty years, but it is debateable whether these changes constitute balancing. Japan may have opted for some balancing: the decision made by Japanese officials in 1994-1995 to keep the US-Japan alliance at the center of Japanese security policy (and to "strengthen" the alliance) was a response to the uncertainty surrounding China's rise, although US and Japanese officials were careful to not mention China when discussing the redefinition of the alliance. In other words, it is possible to argue that Japan has opted for external balancing over internal balancing, which would entail sweeping legal changes and (presumably) an expensive rearmament program that would give Japan greater autonomy from the US to cope with an uncertain regional environment. Nearly a decade of stagnant defense spending in areas aside from missile defense and host nation support — i.e., defense spending directly connected to the alliance — means that autonomy has become increasingly costly for Japan, which may in turn explain why Japanese elites are especially sensitive to recent signals emanating from Washington.

But that being said, there are other explanations for Japan's decision to embrace the alliance that have less to do with balancing and more to do with institutionalist arguments: Japan opted to renew the alliance after the cold war because there was a certain degree of path dependency. While it appeared as if Japan was making a choice between the US-Japan alliance, greater autonomy, and greater independence within the UN and other multilateral organizations, the choice may have been a false one. Japan may have reaffirmed the alliance simply because the balance of power among domestic actors was overwhelmingly in favor of doing so, with little thought to the strategic implications of this choice versus other choices.

Is this about to change? With the defense division of the LDP's Policy Research Council approving its subcommittee's draft NDPG that recommends the acquisition of preemptive strike capabilities — most notably cruise missiles — it is possible that Japan is preparing to shift from external balancing to internal balancing. Prime Minister Aso is favorably disposed to the proposal, although his defense minister, Hamada Yasukazu, is more cautious (triggering two blog posts from Komori Yoshihisa criticizing Hamada for being too soft). But Hamada's caution suggests that there may be skeptics within the LDP who could prevent the government from making a radical break with the status quo. (And there's a strong possibility that the LDP will not be in power long enough to oversee the publication of the new NDPG in December.)

In short, Waterhouse is right to look at domestic politics as a source of Japanese balancing behavior, but he understates the extent to which Japan may have already opted for a particular balancing strategy via the US-Japan alliance, and the extent to which domestic politics constrains political actors who want Japan to embark on a substantial and expensive rearmament program.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Pushback on preemption

Prime Minister Asō Tarō and a group of national security hawks in the LDP may be pushing hard for the inclusion of preemptive capabilities in this year's National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), but it appears that while there is little opposition from within the LDP, the Aso government may yet have some difficulty getting its way on preemption.

The LDP's campaign for preemptive capabilities is part of a broader national security program compiled by a subcommittee of the national defense division of the party's Policy Research Council. In addition to the acquisition of preemptive defense capabilities — which the subcommittee maintains is critical to strengthening the US-Japan alliance — the draft calls for reversing cuts in defense spending, permitting collective self-defense, creating a "Japanese-style" National Security Council, relaxing the three arms-exporting principles to permit joint development, and altering Japan's policies on the defense of outlying islands.

Not surprisingly, Komeitō's leadership has aired its skepticism about both preemptive defense and a new law in the works on the inspection of North Korean vessels.

Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to Japan, criticized the calls for preemptive defense as being unhelpful for resolving the North Korean crisis.

It is unlikely that Ambassador Cui's criticism will do much to stymie the debate on preemptive self-defense — it is possible that he might convince some risk-averse LDP members to question the wisdom of significant changes to Japan's security posture, although, at the same time, his interjection has undoubtedly stiffened the resolve of the LDP's hawks. Komeitō opposition is more significant, at least in terms of having the power to prevent the government from embracing the proposed national defense program or, should Asō embrace the program, soften it considerably. Does Komeitō need to do anything more than remind the LDP of the importance of its votes in the forthcoming election in order to receive concessions from the LDP on security policy?

The question is whether public attitudes towards North Korea have shifted markedly since 2007. In 2007, then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzō sought to implement a national security agenda similarly to the agenda now under consideration. Much like today, Abe could appeal to "evidence" of a North Korean threat in the form of North Korea's missile and nuclear tests, at that time the July 2006 missile launches and the October 2006 nuclear test. He had control of both houses and was largely indifferent to Komeitō's interests. And yet he was unable to do anything more than convene an advisory group on collective self-defense, failed to pass legislation that would create a Japanese-style NSC, failed to reverse the decline in defense spending, and did nothing about preemptive self-defense capabilities. If Abe could not succeed in implementing this program, it seems highly unlikely that Asō will succeed where Abe failed, certainly not without an extraordinary and unexpected victory in this year's election.

The question is whether North Korea's latest actions have produced a tipping point in the Japanese public's approach to North Korea. Have North Korea's second launch over Japan and second nuclear test — combined with unease about the US-Japan alliance following the Bush administration's about-face on North Korea — made the Japanese public more favorably disposed to the conservative national security agenda?

Amazingly, I have yet to see a public opinion poll that has asked respondents about preemptive self-defense capabilities and an accompanying increase in defense spending, but I suspect that elite opinion is more favorably predisposed to preemptive self-defense and the other planks of the LDP subcommittee's program than the public at large. The latest public opinion polls on the alliance — mentioned in this post — recorded growing public unease about the alliance, but it is unlikely that public unease matches that found among elites. Is the public so much more afraid of North Korea and abandonment by the US in the face of North Korean threats today than in October 2006 that it is willing to sign off on the conservative agenda? Not, I suspect, if the public sees the price tag.

Could the Asō government tie the hands of a potential DPJ government on this question? I suspect not. If the government takes steps in the waning weeks of its tenure to include subcommittee's program into the NDPG, the DPJ may be inclined to delay the NDPG in order to start from scratch, so to leave its own stamp on the program.

Of course, the DPJ may in fact be open to preemption, if not to greater military spending in the near term. Autonomous defense capabilities geared to preemptive self-defense flow logically from the DPJ's rhetoric on defense and the US-Japan alliance.

But ultimately the DPJ will be bound by the public — and the public may not be willing to commit to drastic changes in Japan's defense posture, North Korea's saber rattling and doubts about the US commitment notwithstanding. A DPJ-led government, desperate to consolidate its power and likely dependent on the SDPJ, will hardly be more able to implement far-reaching changes to Japanese security policy than Asō and the LDP, hobbled by intra-party divisions, its dependence on Komeitō, and dismal public approval figures.

It is far from inevitable that Asō and the hawks will get their way.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The battle for "reform"

In remarkably little time, the LDP has swung from doomed to ebullient and now once again is showing its age and fragility. And all it took was a nominal change in leadership in the DPJ.

Suga Yoshihide and Nakagawa Hidenao's campaign to ban hereditary politics from the LDP has proved to be immensely detrimental for Aso Taro's push to unify the party, with the ironic twist that the proposal gained support beyond the ranks of the reformists as a means of getting at Koizumi Junichiro, whose son is poised to inherit his seat. The proposal is on hold for the time being, as the LDP's Reform Headquarters, headed by Koizumi loyalist Takebe Tsutomu, has issued a final report on the proposal in which it declined to offer a timeline for introducing a ban on the inheritance of seats (or, more properly, candidacies).

More significantly, Nakagawa and the reformists are battling with the LDP's leadership over the contents of the party's manifesto, especially as it pertains to administrative reform. Nakagawa has created yet another study group devoted to administrative reform, this one with twenty-nine members. He is also circulating a petition calling for a more rigorous administrative reform bill than that on offer from the Aso government — Nakagawa insists that there is no time to waste, that the current extended Diet session is the time for radical adminstrative reform, that waiting until after a general election (you know, after the election in which the LDP may be defeated) is too late.

Nakagawa also insists that his target is the DPJ, not the prime minister. For instance, he has declined to sign the petition aimed at rescheduling the LDP's presidential election so that it is held before the general election. Indeed, Nakagawa wants to refight the 2005 postal election as a means of questioning the DPJ's commitment to administrative reform. The LDP ought to stand behind the Koizumi postal reform, he argues, as the first step in the direction of comprehensive administrative reform — and as a surefire way to distinguish the LDP from the DPJ. (The immediate question at hand is whether to retain Nishikawa Yoshifumi as head of Japan Post to shepherd the new company through to privatization.)

Nakagawa and his compatriots have no shortage of zeal, but zeal is no substitute for votes, party leadership posts, and ministerial portfolios. The LDP has spent the past four years running from Koizumi, isolating his supporters, readmitting the so-called "opposition forces," and more or less abandoning the agenda that served to get the current ruling supermajority elected in the first place. This is the big question surrounding Nakagawa and the other reformists. Are they the heralds of a new LDP that will emerge from the ashes of the old? Are they the last remnants of Koizumi's failed experiment to build a new LDP? The core of a reformist party that will emerge after the next general election? Perhaps it is too early to tell which description is right, but I am inclined to think that Nakagawa's battle to once again cast the LDP as the reform party is unlikely to succeed.

It is not just that the LDP has retreated from Koizumi, to the point of Prime Minister Aso's explicitly distancing his government from his predecessor's, but also that the DPJ isn't the enemy of reform that Nakagawa has long maintained it is. On the face of it, the LDP should have a tough time arguing that a party that has never held power is an enemy of change while a party that has held power for a half century can be the most effective agent of change. If Koizumi had actually won his battle for the party, perhaps this notion would not seem so far-fetched, but as things stand, the LDP cannot surpass the DPJ as the part of "change." Nakagawa might dismiss the DPJ's plans as mere rhetoric — rhetoric that is more or less identical to his own — but he has yet to make the case that his own reform ideas are anything but rhetoric, given his anti-mainstream status within the Aso LDP.

Of course, the DPJ actually has plans for change, most notably its ideas for unifying party and cabinet should it take power. The DPJ has had a comprehensive transition plan since 2003, a plan which clearly reflects lessons learned from LDP rule, the central themes of which will be outlined in a forthcoming article by Kan Naoto in Chuo Koron. Keeping powerful figures — whether formally or informally powerful — in the ruling party out of the government undermines the government. The idea is also to beef up the cabinet and its ministers, at the expense of senior bureaucrats and perhaps one might argue the prime minister's office. The DPJ in effect intends to give life to Article 65 of the constitution, by which "executive power...[is] vested in the Cabinet." Perhaps the most notable change would be transferring responsibility for the budget compilation process to the cabinet, presumably going beyond the administrative reform that shifted some macrobudgeting responsibilities to the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy.

It is revealing, however, that the DPJ's reform plan dates from 2003, having survived the admittance of Ozawa Ichiro to the party and his rise and fall as party president. Indeed, Ozawa's zeal for administrative reform of the kind found in the party program meant that war with Kasumigaseki became ever more central to the party's plans for "regime change." And so it remains despite Ozawa's resignation as party president. The party's message going into the election is remarkably clear: administrative reform in the interest of making government more responsive to the voice of the people. Tellingly, the DPJ will retain its 2007 campaign slogan, "The people's livelihoods are number one." (In other words, it's the economic insecurity, stupid.)

Of course, despite the DPJ's unambiguous message, the general election will not be about policy. as I've argued recently. The campaign will instead feature attempts to muddy the other side's message, to question the other's ability to follow through on their rhetorical commitments to administrative reform and measures to ease economic insecurity. It will not be a particularly enlightening campaign, and it will tell us little about how a DPJ-led government will fare in power.

But then, the question remains. Should this year's general election be a referendum on the DPJ's fitness to govern? Or the LDP's record in power? Having shifted Ozawa into a supporting role, the DPJ has with remarkably little effort made judgment of the LDP's time in office as the dominant narrative of this year's campaign.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Playing games

After consultations among the governing parties, the Aso government has extended the current session of the Diet for fifty-five days, with 28 July the final day of the marathon session.

Ostensibly, the government wants time to pass the supplementary budget-related bills and the anti-piracy bill. But, as Asahi reports, the government only needs to wait until 12 July to have the opportunity to vote again on legislation ignored by the upper house; given that extending the session to late July virtually guarantees that the general election will be held as close to the end of the Diet's four-year term as possible, the long Diet is clearly more about politics than about policy. Naturally opposition parties said precisely that in criticizing the extension. And LDP officials responded to the extension by pushing back the likely date of a general election: on Tuesday Koga Makoto, the LDP's chief election strategist, suggested that an October election in possible.

Who wins the most from the extension? Komeito gets its wish, a virtual guarantee that the general election will be held after the Tokyo prefectural assembly elections in early July. Aso Taro will have more time to travel and play the statesman, and time to hope for another miracle that could give his party the slightest chance of victory in the election. LDP members unsatisfied with Aso's leadership have more time to oust Aso (a petition is now circulating to accelerate the LDP presidential election that must held later this year, in the hope that Aso could be bested). The LDP gets more time to figure out precisely how to sell itself in the campaign — LDP secretary-general Hosoda Hiroyuki said it's fine if the LDP compiles its manifesto closer to an election.

Ultimately it may make no difference. Both the LDP and the DPJ are engaged in posturing with little policy content. (At Shisaku, MTC calls the DPJ on its newly submitted bill "banning" hereditary politics.) The two parties have been debating whether to slash the number of lower house members (as always, Yamamoto Ichita is in the thick of the debate with his own proposal) and the merits of a ban on hereditary politics, as if Japan's biggest problem is too many politicians related to too many other politicians. Japan remains in the midst of a historic economic crisis — even if there are some "green shoots," the overall picture is, as Claus Vistesen argues, one of a deteriorating economy. Indeed, the government recently reported a 4.4% increase over the previous month in the number of unemployed irregular and temporary workers, a reminder of the social consequences of the crisis. Despite having an extra fifty-five days for parliamentary debate, neither party is close to having an answer for the crisis. Political reform of the kind being debated among the LDP and the DPJ are not irrelevant for Japan's future, but they are irrelevant for its present.

The political system, now more than any time during the past several years, is passing time until the general election. The Aso government and the LDP are too busy figuring out how to survive — their time horizons having narrowed considerably — to make plans for a long-term recovery. The DPJ, obsessed with taking power and reluctant to give the LDP ammunition, has no interest in a good-faith debate on any urgent policy matter, not when it can see victory in sight.

I'm with Yamaguchi Jiro: there's simply nothing left for this Diet to do that cannot wait until after a general election. That this Diet will seat for fifty-five days past its expiration date is a travesty.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Separated by a common enemy

Already under consideration before North Korea's nuclear test last week, the LDP's push to include plans for an indigenous capability to strike North Korea to preempt an attack on Japan has picked up speed over the past week. On May 26th, Prime Minister Aso Taro reminded reporters that since 1955 preemptive self-defense has been considered legal. The same day a subcommittee of the defense division of the LDP's Policy Research Council approved a draft of proposals to include in this year's National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) that calls for preemptive strike capabilities, especially sea-launched cruise missiles. On the 28th, the prime minister once again asserted the legality of preemptive strikes, this time in proceedings in the Upper House Budget Committee.

In the midst of this debate, Mainichi called for a less passionate debate that acknowledges the risks associated with this step, including the feasibility of preemptive strikes against North Korea, the consequences for the US-Japan alliance, and the dangers of arms racing and security dilemmas in East Asia. I second Mainichi's concerns: there are a number of questions that advocates of preemptive strike capabilities have yet to answer, most notably the question of what independent Japanese strike capabilities add to US capabilities.

It now appears that the US government may be contributing to the debate over Japanese preemptive strike capabilities.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered a message to Japanese and South Korean elites worried about the sturdiness of the US commitment to its East Asian allies:
The Republic of Korea and Japan have since become economic powerhouses with modern, well-trained and equipped armed forces. They are more willing and able to take responsibility for their own defense and assume responsibility for collective security beyond their shores. As a result, we are making adjustments in each country to maintain a posture that is more appropriate to that of a partner, as opposed to a patron. Still, though, a partner fully prepared and able to carry out all – I repeat, all – of our alliance obligations.
This message is ambiguous, welcoming greater allied contributions while reaffirming the US role in defending its allies, especially via extended nuclear deterrence, but Sankei's Komori Yoshisa believes that there is more to the story. The Obama administration, he writes in an ecstatic post at his blog (if two exclamation points are any indication), has signed off on preemptive strike capabilities. His evidence is derived from interviews of Gates and Wallace Gregson, assistant secretary of defense for Asian-Pacific affairs by Asahi's Washington correspondent Kato Yoichi in which both officials appear to accept Japan's having the ability to strike at threats outside its borders. Gates's statement is vague, premised on the notion of "If Japan decides" to acquire more offensive capabilities, i.e. practicing what he has preached about the US being a partner instead of a patron. Gregson, while also reluctant to comment on what is a domestic matter for Japan, was open to a new division of labor between the US and Japan.

I appreciate that the US officials are refraining from overt interference in Japan's internal political discussions, but I think that the US has reasons to be concerned about this shift. (I also think that Komori is fishing for US support for his position. But a pair of quotes in an Asahi article do not a new policy make.)

Apart from the aforementioned reasons for skepticism about Japan's acquiring autonomous strike capabilities, there is another reason why the US should be concerned about this debate in Japan.

Arguably one reason for the difference in US and Japanese approaches to North Korea — apart from geography, the abductees, and domestic politics — is the US alliance with South Korea. Japan's North Korea policy can be conceived solely in terms of Japanese national interests, defending Japanese lives and property from the rogue state next door. The US approach to North Korea is broader. Not only is the US concerned about the threat posed to the US by the possibility of the transfer of nuclear materials, but it is worried to a lesser extent about the durability of the global non-proliferation regime. And it is not only concerned about the threat to Japanese security, but South Korean security as well.

The conflicting demands of the US-South Korea and US-Japan alliances are a source of turbulence in the US-Japan alliance. The US, legally committed to the defense of South Korea, has to think carefully about its words and actions vis-à-vis North Korea — indeed, the US is deterred from launching a preventive and perhaps a preemptive war against North Korea due to the threat posed by North Korean conventional capabilities to Seoul. This lends an air of restraint to US pronouncements on North Korea. As Sam Roggeveen writes, it is possible to read Gates's speech in Singapore as outlining a containment policy in recognition of the considerable obstacles in the way of denuclearization. It also bears recalling the decision by the US government ruling out in advance an attempt to shoot down North Korea's test rocket. That decision has been interpreted by Japanese elites as evidence of the shakiness of the US defense commitment. Maybe so, but it may be more appropriate to view the US not as lacking commitment to Japan's defense but having concerns greater than Japan's defense.

Which is why the US (and South Korea) should be concerned about Japan's acquiring independent preemptive strike capabilities. Japan, not having any alliance relationship with South Korea, will have no reason to take South Korea's security into consideration in confronting North Korea. If the Japanese government detects an imminent launch — with the autonomous surveillance capabilities that conservatives also wanted included in the NDPG — it will be able to act solely on the basis of the direct threat posed by North Korea's missiles to the Japanese homeland. It will not have to consider whether launching a preemptive strike will lead North Korea, fearing a mortal threat to the DPRK regime or perhaps not being able to identify the source of an attack, to lash out against South Korea. Unconstrained by broader regional commitments, Japan could use its new capabilities for "offensive defense" and in the process trigger a broader regional crisis — not out of a lust for conquest, but simply out of a desire to defend itself from an external threat.

This may be an unlikely scenario: after all, it is not clear that the NDPG will include plans for preemptive capabilities, and even if strike capabilities make their way into Japan's defense plans, they may amount to nothing more than a token force. And Japan may not be able to gather the necessary intelligence for attacks against North Korea's mobile launchers.

However unlikely, South Korea ought to reach out to Japan in order to close the gap, in effect forcing Japan to think about broader regional security when it considers the threat posed by North Korea. In other words, it is necessary for South Korea (and the US) to undo the damage done when the Japanese government decided to make recovering the abductees the central goal of Japan's North Korea policy. That decision produced a Japan solipsistic in its approach to North Korea, inclined to view North Korea through its distinct lens, barely considering the perspectives from which other countries have struggled to manage North Korea.

It is encouraging that the US, Japan, and South Korea had their first ever defense ministerial meeting in Singapore Friday. If Japan is to acquire its own strike capabilities, it has to be prepared to wield them responsibly, considering the consequences that saber rattling, to say nothing of preemptive strikes could have for other countries in the region. Regional security and stability is a Japanese national interest, even without formal alliance commitments in East Asia. Realizing that, perhaps Japan's leaders will become more appreciative of US efforts to uphold regional security — especially the defense of South Korea —and less unnerved by US restraint, in turn lessening the need for independent capabilities.